Meet Australia, the traitor who turns you in

Write that you’re ashamed of your country and the same bullshit argument descends like a dead snapper. Within three minutes Internet time, someone who doesn’t share your disenchantment will say “Why don’t you just fuck off to North Korea then?”

This is either a subtle recruitment strategy by agents of the Kim dynasty, or a series of Aussies woofing at the wrong foliage. Disappointment in your own country doesn’t mean you hate it and want it boxed up. It means you care enough that you want it to be better. Patriotism that denies all fault can dine out on a juicy choad.

There’s a story you know from thrillers and bad dreams. You have a heart-pounding escape from an evildoer. You reach safety, find an ally. Relief floods in, you have sanctuary. Then… the ally betrays you to whoever you were fleeing. Or you dodge the monster, bolt the doors, then turn to see your smiling friend change shape. Gaining hope only to have it snatched away, that’s the nightmare, and our most visceral form of despair.

Well, Australia is now that traitor who turns you in.

Aussies have two reactions when refugees are mentioned: switch off in boredom or retreat to established political lines. Instead of either, get your shit together for five minutes and think about this like a functioning person. It’s important.

Our government now hands Sri Lankan Tamils over to the same Sri Lankan military they’re running from. There are no grey areas here: we are surrendering people to a government with a proven recent record of murdering those like them.

It does not matter how hard or soft your stance is on asylum. It doesn’t matter if you say refugee or queue jumper. It doesn’t matter if you’re all about proper paperwork, using the front door, or one giant global reach-around. I’m not arguing any of those points. They’re not relevant.

What is relevant is what happens when human beings are in our custody. Of the options available for dealing with them, sending them to people who might kill them is not one. Sending them to people who will likely hurt them, imprison them, and subject them to surveillance and harassment, is not either. Speculating that they should have stopped in India just shifts the blame: “Hi, we’re delivering people to be tortured, but they deserve it because they didn’t follow protocol.” No matter whether we disapprove of how they got into our custody, what matters is how they leave it.

And guess what? Your gut feeling that they’re not real refugees isn’t actually relevant. Places where guessing is great include casinos, game shows, and the hilarious opening sequence to Lethal Weapon 3. Places where guessing is not great include refugee assessments whose subjects may end up being stomped in a prison cell. Baseless assertions do not mean you’re “telling it like it is,” they mean you are up to your back teeth in liquid dumbfuckery.

So the only point of contention is whether Sri Lanka is safe. Except that isn’t a point of contention unless you’re either ignorant, which is fair enough, or a complete liar, which is not. Accordingly, such statements only came from poorly informed internet commenters and Australian prime ministers.

“I want to make this observation,” observed Tony Abbott observantly from the observation deck in his observatory. “Sri Lanka is not everyone’s idea of an ideal society, but it is at peace.”

“There is no way these people are Asylum Seekers. Sri Lanka isn’t a place of persecution and oppression, in fact its a TOURIST destination!” expanded Peter over at The Age, proving it is possible to both type and be a damp fuckstain on the sagging sharehouse couch of humanity at the same time. Most places are pretty nice when you’re spending a bunch of foreign currency away from conflict zones.

The facts are there. While the Tamil Tigers have shed plenty of blood, the Sri Lankan army rounded off the long civil war in 2009 by targeting Tamil civilians en masse. They announced ‘no fire zones’ which would be free from attack, waited until Tamil refugees filled them, then cut off supplies and shelled them for weeks, including consistent attacks on hospitals. The conservative estimate is 40,000 dead.

But wait, says Ron: “Some friends have recently holidayed in Sri Lanka for 3 weeks. They have rated it a beautiful country with beautiful people and considering how widely travelled they are, have rated it one of their best and most enjoyable holiday destinations. Something doesn’t ring true about the persecution.”

Verified footage taken by Sri Lanka’s own soldiers shows them shooting naked bound prisoners in the head; tying prisoners to trees and cutting their throats; and piling up dozens of women’s bodies for disposal, half dressed or naked after being raped. Through these clips the perpetrators joke and chatter, egging each other on, giving at least a façade of casually enjoying their work. (You can see the vision here, but it’s very hard going.)

Anna: “The war with the Tamils was over ages ago.”

Archbishop Desmond Tutu: “The war is clearly not yet over.”

Tutu was punchy as hell in the foreword to an independent investigation by the Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales. He wasn’t impressed by findings that “Abduction, arbitrary detention, torture, rape and sexual violence have increased in the post-war period. This report establishes a prima facie case of post-war crimes against humanity by the Sri Lankan security forces.” Several European countries have stopped deporting any Tamils, “finding them to be at risk of torture on return.”

Abbott: “Sri Lanka is not everyone’s idea of an ideal society, but it is at peace.”

Sri Lanka has the second-highest rate of disappearances in the world behind Iraq. People are routinely abducted by white vans, then interrogated under torture or executed. Local journalists are murdered, foreign journalists deported, websites censored, aid workers killed, NGOs accused of political agendas. Tamil areas remain under military occupation with foreign access closely monitored. Terrorism laws allow detention for 18 months without charge, a threat that occupying forces use to extort money and sex from Tamils. “Members of the Sri Lankan security forces are secure in the knowledge that no action will be taken against them,” says the BHRC report.

Dave: “let’s give [refugee] spots to people who truly have nothing and need the help, rather than the people who have the money to jump the queue.”

BHRC: “These are the witnesses whose families were able to bribe them out of detention and send them abroad. We don’t know what happens to those without family or money. I continue to receive horrifying reports from inside Sri Lanka of women subjected to years of repeated sexual violence by the security forces in the north and threats to rape their daughters if they don’t comply.”

Abbott: “Sri Lanka is not everyone’s idea of an ideal society, but it is at peace.”

Yeah, nah. You don’t need intelligence briefings to know what’s up. Sri Lanka’s government dismiss the mountain of evidence as biased: apparently footage of jungle executions is unfair to those holding the guns. In the battle between the remotely possible and the plausible, you have to conclude that it’s less likely for war crimes to be elaborately and convincingly faked than to be real. Human history unfortunately favours the latter.

The government might also be a touch more credible if they did anything to disprove the claims, instead of fighting tooth and claw to resist all inquiry after having the army pronounce itself not guilty. The weak generality of their denials is damning enough: “There were no civilian casualties,” was their president’s flat claim when the fighting was done. It’s the same absurdist denial that sees Scott Morrison refuse to admit that refugee boats exist even while their occupants are on the phone to journalists. You could take Morrison and Rajapaksa to Everest Base Camp, ask them to describe what’s in front of you, and have them agree that they’re not aware of any mountains in the area.

This is what Australia is collaborating with. Nor is it new: in March we stood up in the UN to oppose a war crimes inquiry. Last November we gave Sri Lanka two navy patrol boats to help stop asylum seeker escapes, a Labor scheme first championed by the insectile Bob Carr. This is direct collusion with an ongoing human rights abuser. Apparently it’s as convenient for us to ignore Sri Lanka’s excesses as it is for them.

It’s not right.

It makes my skin crawl, how snugly this all fits with historical precedent. I know smug shitheads on the internet live for the righteous joy of hollering “Godwin!”, but not all mentions of Nazi Germany indicate a train of thought plummeting into Crazy Ravine. As someone whose study specialised in 20th century war crimes I can attest that Hitler’s chaps provide a useful logical marker. The benefit of their example is its clarity: while the odd whackjob denies the Holocaust, no one credible defends it. This is the premier case where the rights and wrongs are self-evident.

Contrast an example with a Nazist approach doesn’t mean you’re equating the two. But if you can take an example that everyone agrees is wrong, then show how a rationale or behavioural pattern within it is mirrored elsewhere, you can illustrate an ethical failing.

The parallels are there: a military hunting a particular group, an attempt to escape, a lack of will from other countries to help. Various ship-loads of Jewish refugees were denied landfall outside Europe, and plenty who returned ended up dead. When the news first broke about the Sri Lankan handovers, a Jewish friend of mine wrote about her family’s history: relatives hiding in attics and escaping over borders in the night. Ethically, she said, there was no difference between us handing over Tamils or informers turning in those relatives. Surrendering people at risk is the same.

The overly literal like Eric Abetz would cite false equivalence, but that applies to scale. There is no moral difference between executing a thousand prisoners or a hundred thousand; the moral breach comes with the first shot. A legitimate comparison is that our government, like those of the Western powers before WWII, are ignoring morality for political convenience.

Late in my WWII studies I came across a photograph. Hungarian Jews, safe for the first few years, were rounded up and deported in 1944. In this photograph were hundreds squeezed together on a train platform, and at the front of the crush, looking worried and very young, was the friend I mentioned earlier. Well, almost: not a perfect double but very close, something in her bearing and her face that crossed those generations. Years of grim research had left me professionally detached, but here I was shocked back into feeling: a rage, a helplessness, an impossible urge to save her, a despair that whatever awaited this woman was long since done and gone. It was the outrage at the idea of someone I cared about being treated like that, because she was not a stat or a story or a case study, she was a person.

Everyone we pick up at sea is a person. They deserve to be treated that way. We don’t just owe it to them, we owe it to ourselves to behave with honour. Every time Morrison commends our navy for their duty, he is stripping them of the honour their vocation should entail.

I’ll say it plain: we are aiding and abetting murderers. We are actively helping a regime that continues to kill and torture its citizens. People are pleading for help while we chat to those in power and pretend not to hear. We are doing all this so the current government can win the pointless merit badge of saying that they stopped the fucking boats, whatever the cost to other people’s lives and our own decency.

The words and ideas we use are being twisted. We say we send people into danger “to prevent deaths at sea”. We discuss visas in terms of “rewarding” people, not helping them. Government lawyers argue that the High Court can’t stop them transferring detainees whose existence has not been officially announced.

And in the midst of this fuckery, our leader stands up to give a speech to a bunch of businessmen. He says that “We are not a mean or petty people. We will remain a beacon of hope and optimism, freedom and prosperity in a troubled world.” He is a man willing to trade political advantage for the lives of strangers. And here is a country that is letting him do it, that gave him the chance, and whose name and benefit is invoked as the cause with each step along his way. The stain is on all of us. We are not a beacon. We’re a lighthouse. Our signal warns mariners to stay the fuck away or we will smash you on these rocks. You’re damn right I’m ashamed.

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Now’s a really good time to re-think voting Abbott

Australia. Don’t fucking ruin it for everyone. Sometime in the next couple of days you are all going to do that weird dance with the little cardboard houses and the scrawling of runes on scrolls, and like a magical phoenix sewn from boredom and Windsor knots, a new government will be formed. According to what I’ve read in the newspapers owned by one guy, and seen in the polling of people his age who still have hand-cranked telephones, enough of you are going to vote for Liberal or National candidates that Tony Abbott will be installed as Prime Minister.

What I really, really wonder is whether you’ve thought this through.

If you are planning to vote Coalition, I’d love you to actually read the following and think about it, rather than scrolling straight to the comments for a pre-emptive gloat. Because your choice would be a very poor one, for you and for the rest of us, on policy alone.

On one thing we agree: I too would love to see Labor booted soundly from office. To go over their failings would take more time than I could spend without punching myself repeatedly in the face for light relief. But if Labor’s last term served up a bowl of curdled fuckslaw, the Liberals have taken a dump on top, stirred it in with salad tongs and are telling you it’s called chou Parisienne. But even my view here requires a disgust at Labor’s ethical failures, like deep-throating the pokies industry or joining in the fake panic about a handful of poor fuckers in shitbox watercraft. On these ethical issues, middle-ground voters – the self-appointed pragmatists of the electoral landscape – are often found without a great many fucks to give.

Which means? The reasons you want to vote out Labor make up precisely none of the reasons they should be voted out. Your key issues involve the economy, the general standard of life in Australia, our position in the world and our prospects for the future. If you consider yourself a conservative, your choice is easy. Labor has been a great conservative government. The radicals and the cowboys, especially in terms of economics, are found in Abbott’s Coalition.

Firstly, the NBN is the most important infrastructure project in decades and we cannot afford to fuck it up. No one thinks twice about spending money on highways, railways and power grids, because our society can’t function without them. Internet connectivity is already central to so much of our industry and economy, and will only become more important in the years ahead. If Australia is to compete internationally it needs the best possible infrastructure, and rural Australia needs the same access. This isn’t some feelgood pamphlet shit to be read out over a string quartet singing ‘We Are Australian’. The NBN could actually bring dying towns and regions back to life, as connectivity makes living and working there far more appealing and viable. It’s certainly the best prayer that country Australia has had for a century. It’s also designed with the capacity to adapt to the massive data increases the future will bring. It’s a costly and ambitious project, because quality and comprehensive projects are.

Abbott’s alternative is a cheery two-fingered salute to every one of us. It uses technology that will be obsolete before it’s built, require far greater maintenance, and deliver slower internet speeds by 2019 than other countries have now. The speed could lag 20 times behind the NBN. Even Malcolm Turnbull thinks it’s horse-shit, and he’s the guy in charge of shovelling it. Saying we can’t afford infrastructure is criminally short-sighted when that infrastructure will pay for itself many times over. Then there’s the bizarreness of Abbott’s constituency including the country areas represented by the Nationals, whose voters and MPs are apparently happy to help kick holes in the bottom of their own rowboat. It’s not that Abbott opposes the NBN, he’s just duty-bound to oppose anything that Labor came up with first. But to let that partisan mentality threaten a project of such genuine national importance is unforgiveable from a man who wants to lead that nation.

And that’s just one part of Abbott’s wider economic fuckery. For a party that is supposed to stand for economic management and sense, the last three years have been a self-parody escalating in intensity and weirdness with each passing news cycle. After years of panic about the carbon tax, the economy absorbed it without a ripple, while industrial carbon emissions have already fallen. Cost of living increased less than half as much under Gillard as it did under Howard or Rudd – yes, true, and motherfucking incredible given the way that carbon whatsit was going to make us sell our kids to Origin Energy or whatever.

Nonetheless, Abbott still has an economic agenda more insane than the Greens’ most radical fringe-dwellers could muster at the end of a week-long meth binge. The blood pledge to repeal all carbon penalties is still in force, ditto for the mining tax, though he still intends to pay for the associated expenses, only without having the money, and he can’t tell us how he’ll do that. DON’T WORRY BE COOL HE’S A MAGICIAN.

Businesses that were supposed to be ruined have said they weren’t adversely affected – see BHP’s response to Abbott’s monumental Olympic Dam fuck-up. Whatever you thought of carbon pricing beforehand, removing it now only causes more headaches and instability. Then, rather than businesses paying for the carbon they emit, Abbott’s Direct Action policy has taxpayers directly funding billions in handouts to these same businesses, who will be asked nicely to spend it on emitting less. And to top it off, after the warnings of how taxes on business would ultimately ruin us all, Abbott plans to fund billions in unnecessary parental leave by… imposing an extra tax on business.

The fact that Abbott’s costings weren’t released until two days before the election should alone disqualify him from contention. No one pulls a bullshit stunt like that unless they have an army of skeletons to keep buried. Then there’s the fact that the costings were just a list of numbers with no indication as to how they were reached. A man who has talked endlessly about trust expects an electorate to accept his policies and promises based on pure faith.

But faith is what Abbott is all about. His work in opposition has been a simple matter of making statements. The carbon tax is toxic. Australia has too much debt. The cost of living is rising. It doesn’t matter how empirically this shit is disproved; somehow, like a fucking average horror movie, the same tiresome desiccated monster pops its reanimated head up and starts roaring once more. Like Bloody Mary in the bathroom mirror, the mere act of saying something enough times calls it into being.

Take the question of debt. A deciding factor for many in this election will be a fear of national debt. In their minds, we had a budget surplus, now we don’t, this means things are bad and it has to be corrected. If you are one of those people, let me give you a really quick economics primer. In an economy with the risk of slow growth, government investment is an ideal form of stimulus. Investment in infrastructure is good because you purchase something that keeps being useful in the long term, while generating further revenue for the private individuals or companies who use it, which in turn helps raise government revenue via tax. So when my e-phone rings, I can hand-deliver one internet via the information superhighway on my cyberbike, and both me and my government benefit from the extra income.

These investments are funded by borrowing against the prospect of future benefit. Government capital is raised (and debt incurred) by routine issuing of bonds. There aren’t any loan sharks out there waiting to break our national knees. In boom times, when revenue is higher, there’s less need for government stimulus which means deficits reduce. And after all that, turns out Australia’s ratio of debt to GDP (the best indicator of troublesome debt) is one of the lowest of all developed nations. Well fuck me, it’s true.

In the meantime, after three years bemoaning Labor’s wasteful big-spending approach and promising to do better, Abbott’s costings – if all goes perfectly to his plan – have tweaked three budget lines to identify $6billion in savings over four years. That’s 0.3 percent of the budget. Over four motherfucking years. In Federal terms, that’s change you find down the back of the couch. Deeper and uglier cuts will have to follow, but clearly he doesn’t want us to know what they are. Either that or he doesn’t know yet. The prospect that Abbott just spits raw mince at a brainstorm wall-chart and picks policies based on gristle-clusters has never left my mind. Even the firmly right-wing Economist, focusing specifically on finance and economics, has warned that Abbott’s policies are dangerously unclear and untested, and heralded the work of Labor’s last two terms. That’s like Choc Mundine volunteering at a library.

However he gets there, Abbott’s policy will be to cut spending and produce an austerity budget – for no other reason than ‘budget surplus’ sounding nice to uninformed voters. A quite plausible result will be a recession, as government spending drops, jobs are lost, community spending drops, welfare claims increase, and tax receipts fall. In many situations having a surplus is actually irresponsible policy – there’s nothing sensible about failing to invest when investment is required.

As well as downgrading the NBN, this will involve cutting clean energy investment at a time when even the great scapegoat of China is pumping unprecedented cash into the sector. Basically, Australia in global economic terms will become more isolated, more backwater, and increasingly left behind to scratch our nuts, chew grass stems, grow our front teeth long and head to the hayloft to fingerbang our sisters. Great work, fuckos.

But the talk on debt betrays the biggest problem of all. The biggest problem is Tony Abbott. Even ignoring the personal quirks, like his incessantly creepy weirdness with women, or the fact that he mostly looks like he’s about to slurp a fly out of midair, Abbott is a negative, uninspired, uninspiring, ruthless and mean-spirited person with a desire for power. Rudd loves the spotlight, but this occasionally has the side effect of him doing good things to get it. Abbott does not give a fuck what anyone thinks. Even if you do like Tony Abbott, Tony Abbott does not like you.

An example is lying about the problems with debt, when debt is how most countries function. An example is lying about Australia’s credit rating being at risk, when the country was ranked AAA. An example is claiming carbon dioxide couldn’t be measured because gas is weightless, which is right up there in scientific nuance with saying the sun revolves around the earth. Abbott knows these lines aren’t true – he’s many things, but not stupid. Still, he’s happy to lie to those who might vote for him, banking on them not knowing any better. The condescension to his own supporters is truly offensive. But he gets away with it, not because people are stupid, but because they don’t have the time or inclination to cross-check. In short, Tony Abbott thinks that you, the person voting for him, are a fucking idiot. He is happy to take advantage of this to mislead you. While intellectuals are often derided as snobs by the conservative side of politics, this attitude is far more poisonously elitist.

*****

Australia. Mate. Please, do not jam this clusterfuck of a political career into the most prominent role in our democracy. Much as I’d love to be proud of my country, it’s not likely to happen this election, given how low both sides have crawled and our own willingness to get on all fours to follow. But we cannot afford someone as unpredictable and unaccountable as Tony Abbott. In three years of complaining about lies he hasn’t spoken one straight word. He hasn’t made one election promise specific enough to be held to. His list of disgusting comments is long and distinguished, and he would start making those as our representative to the world. Like so many on the conservative fringe, Abbott manufactures ideological enemies out of people whose only offence is to advocate generosity or restraint. He has a tenuous grasp on reality, and a perverse view of a great deal of social interaction and moral questions.

Personal qualities notwithstanding, he’s an intensely dangerous politician who is likely to do economic and social damage to a level beyond even the incompetent Labor of Joe Hockey’s wettest dreams. The sealer is that Hockey is a far more decent human than Abbott can ever hope to be, yet is willing to ape the steps of the bullshit dance. Abbott has shown an absolute willingness to make any moves necessary in order to gain power, for no other reason than gaining power. He has no articulated vision, no aims, no agenda aside from winning and being in charge. But power for the sake of taking power is completely fucking pointless. Power because you don’t like another group having it – a group who, on any terms or indicators that you yourself would value, are doing a very capable job – is reckless and selfish as well.

If you are conservative, Tony Abbott is not your man. If you’re concerned about the economy, Tony Abbott is not your man. If you want truth and accountability in politics, Tony Abbott is not even a man, he’s some kind of protozoa living in a sulphur vent. And if you give any thought to how our country is perceived internationally, Tony Abbott will never be our man. Ethically, personally, and in terms of policy, he’s someone our country should be deeply ashamed to even consider electing, let alone to elect. For the love of all that’s holy, please spare us three years of that.

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Strung out like jungle flowers

There is a strange magic to aeroplanes.

I’m not just talking about the mechanics of flight, explained in the same terms of bilateral air pressure variance that apply to a cricket ball’s swing. Of course the physics are remarkable enough; that confluence of lift, drag, weight and thrust that allows three hundred tons of metal to glide across air like a skimmed stone. Every take-off, I watch the ground drop away, the world recompose itself into aerial maps, with a reverence akin to the religious.

But more extraordinary even than this is the concept itself: that of some kind of religious rite, in which you enter a strange low place of worship, wait for 20-odd hours in dimmed lights and hushed tones, carry out the dozens of little observances demanded of you by the priests and attendants, then walk out to find yourself on the other side of the world. By firing the right incense and mumbling the right prayers, you’ve traversed the planet in a day by sitting in an armchair.

Yet people love complaining about long-haul flights, enumerating the hours they’ve endured in the air as though they were strokes of a shipboard lash. I have never understood the mentality. Once, these journeys would once have involved six months on a ship, or years by foot, and involved very real danger. Now, they’re packaged and consumed like foil trays of chicken. (And somewhere, out there in the darkness, the saddest chef in the world is assembling airline meals, one by one.)

Tonight, we are floating high above the Java Sea. Heading to England to follow Australia’s Ashes tour for the months to come, Cam and I travelled to the airport in winter sunshine, a day away from changing seasons and hemispheres. I hugged my girlfriend goodbye, impressed her on my retinas, realising what a privilege it is to have someone prepared to cry for you.

Of the seven hours to Singapore, the first five and more are over Australia, reminding you of the comical vastness of our homeland. For those who’ve come across the sea, we’ve boundless plains to share, goes our barely remembered national anthem. Unless it’s an election year and you’re no good at cricket.

Under you, all that red dirt and spinifex, the cops and rocks and Max Max mythology, slide by, until you hit the north coast somewhere between Darwin and Derby, and suddenly you’re off the continental shelf. To your right is East Timor, occasional participant in our own national history, reminder of the times when we aimed to help others, and the times when we didn’t.

Singapore arrives, passes in a blur of nasi lemak, then falls behind, hundreds of queuing cargo ships dotting its coastline in patient islands of light. The Malaysian peninsula stretches away, its velvet black hung with the same glowing strings that enthralled me on my first real trip overseas, almost a decade ago, fizzing with nerves on the descent to Kuala Lumpur. The sight, unchanged this much later, eventually made its way into a poem, trying to hint at how Australian soldiers might have felt arriving here in 1941.

Malaya from below and from above
Your long body beneath me, laced
with arsenic-orange and blue-fuzzed stars
strung out like jungle flowers

Passing Singapore is strange. I’ve travelled plenty, but never much further north of here. This part of the world was destination, not transit; the end of flights and the beginning of adventures. Not much more than kids, I remember my girlfriend of the time waiting at KL airport, our combination of early morning fuzziness and dazed radiance, her mother pressing a bag of breakfast muffins into my hands and saying “Eat, Geoff,” in that way of hers that was part concern, part order.

But, like the years in which I lived there, Malaysia soon recedes from view. There is nothing for it but to face forward, crossing whatever new lines the night conceals. Now we are over the Bay of Bengal; now Georgia, now the stretches of Ukraine. We cross countries I know only from the wars that crawled their surface. Somewhere below us in the night, the Himalayas whisper by while we doze, casually exceeding the heights so many climbers have died for.

Germany proves impossible to see from the air without imagining the perspective of a British bombardier. Then comes England, its coastline emerging from the dawn against the Channel’s muted blue, the land taking form in the fields and hedgerows and woods of your most clichéd imagination.

It is strange to finally be going to England. This is a place that has so strongly formed my cultural understanding, yet one I’ve never even seen. Australia has both a preoccupation with race and an immense blind spot. If you’re anything but white, you will consistently be asked about your background. If you’re white, you probably won’t know what yours is.

White is still treated as the Australian default. Even the Greeks, Italians and Lebanese who reclaimed the word ‘wog’ for themselves will use ‘Aussie’ as its antonym. The variants of English, Irish, Scotch or Welsh are seen as facets of a British whole barely worth distinguishing.

I certainly don’t feel a kinship with any Anglo ancestors, not the way recent migrants are supposed to continue identifying with their own. But the connection of culture can’t be denied. England is the source of my sense of humour, my enjoyment of language, and the greater part of the books that have mattered to me. Its music, history, architecture and political system play big roles in my life. And importantly in the context of this trip, England created the game of cricket, one of the abiding fascinations of my life and so many others.

Considering that, it seems reasonable to make one visit to say thank-you. And as it will later turn out, with admirable prescience, I will have excused myself from enduring our election in close proximity. While toxicity still travels, these things are more palatable from afar.

 

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Best text message exchange ever

I was cleaning out my phone last night and found this in its dim recesses, from a UK number to Australia last year. Still amazing. Still no idea what the fuck was going on.

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Campbell of the Overflow

A salute to the captain of the good ship Queensland. On visiting Campbell Newman’s sunny state last week, I was asked to be part of an event called The Sincerest Form of Flattery, in which writers mimic the style of a favourite author. I decided to go with A.B. Paterson. When I’ve got a minute I might rework this, keeping to the Banjo’s original metre. But I rather had to knock this piece together on the day, so this is it, as performed at the Brisbane Writers Festival.

Campbell of the Overflow

There were clouds on the horizon – weren’t no earthly signs of fire
But McKellar wasn’t wrong about the floods,
Rain was coming in from north until the state was underwater
And the whole of Brisbane smothered in the mud.

Well, the people there were downing all the beers around, and drowning
All their sorrows deep as Ipswich in the booze,
And along each laneway shivered down a small suburban river
Each delivering a ton of stinking ooze.

But amidst the muck and shambles up there popped a man named Campbell
And he said “I’ll drive the ambulance, m’lud,
For the state is doing poorly, badly thrown like Brett Kimmorley
And New Orleans is in better shape than us.”

So he caught an ebbing tide before the waters had subsided
And his course it was decided hard and true,
And of course he was derided in the coarsest sort of style, but
He was cautiously inspired to see it through.

He was stern as Robbie Deans, he tucked his shirt into his jeans,
He had the waistband hitched up halfway to his throat,
And he fixed us with his eyes – the distant stare of a survivor
Of a dozen Christmas sales at Country Road.

He said “Look, it’s no surprise to find that Anna Bligh’s a liar
Handing assets out to buyers like a king.”
(He was perfectly entitled to be getting high and mighty
Cos the Liberals never privatise a thing.)

Campbell Newman, tough and hardy, tackled all the Labor Party
And you’d understate to call the thing a rout;
Well he chopped them up like Fargo – now they fit in a Tarago
And their arguments’ll barely make a sound.

And the boss takes his position, making tough but fair decisions
Taking money off those lazy writer louts,
Then he saves us all a bother when he gives it to Big Brother
And some other worthy candidates about.

Cos he gets a sense of power watching housemates in the shower
And the hour means it’s late enough to tug –
Well, his wife’s asleep till dawn, although he’s scared to surf a porno
Cos they’re storing all our internet results.

See, it’s guilty masturbation that’s the driver of our nation –
It’s the fire that fuels all angry little men
Who proclaim “The Day of Judgement’s too far off, so bring the bludgers
In before me, and I’ll throw ‘em in the pen.”

“And I’ll throw the book and gavel, and my robes, and an enamel
coffee mug I found out sitting in the hall,
and a pair of fishnet stockings, and this book on Garry Hocking” –
that’s a joke that won’t suit Queenslanders at all.

So our hero, brave and fearless, quite the paradigm of leaders
Forms a double-act to press the crucial truth:
If you’re looking after miners, don’t trust leaders with vaginas –
And remind them when you hit the voting booth.

Yes, he might win an election, but his head sports an erection
Though it’s hard to be a dickhead and a tit,
So if you’re wading through the gloom and wanna feel like a new man…
Maybe stop and reconsider for a bit.

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Want to write new work with Elefant Traks?

Here’s one of the more exciting things I’ve been working on while I’ve been away. The record label Elefant Traks is a great Australian institution, founded by The Herd over a decade ago and supporting top-class Australian music and writing ever since.

A few months ago I joined forces with Ozi Batla on a new project. He assembled a supergroup under the ET aegis, with members of The Herd and Metabass joined by ace rapper The Tongue, soul singer Candice Monique, and spoken word legend Adam Gibson. The whole crew is heading to Newcastle in a couple of weeks to offer an intensive workshop combining writing with music. And it’s free.

This is part of the National Young Writers Festival, which I’m co-directing, so all kinds of writers are welcome. Rappers could get involved, but so could short story writers, poets, slammers, spoken word artists, anyone else who says things aloud. Quiet or loud, cynical or sincere. We want to find people who don’t think their style belongs here, and make it belong here. I’ve always been interested in working with music, but never really had the opportunity to follow it up. So I wanted some writers to get that opportunity, to work with some of the best musicians in the business, and people who really understand how to blend speech and sound.

Spaces in this workshop are extremely limited – as few as 10, a max of 15. So you need to sign up ahead of time. If you are a writer who’d be into this, or know a writer who’d be into it, get them to sign on. This is an unprecedented chance to work with this calibre of musician, in depth, at no cost.

The workshops will run over two full days, on Friday 28 and Saturday 29 September. You’ll develop your work in small groups, with support from the rappers, singers, and musicians on staff. Then on the Saturday night, you’ll perform the finished product, with the Elefant Traks band backing you up, at the NYWF Saturday Night Ball. Your work will be recorded for posterity. You’ll need to get yourself to Newcastle, but this is something well worth travelling for.

Recording a piece with Elefant Traks is a pretty special opportunity, but you need to apply, and REALLY soon. Send an expression of interes to info@youngwritersfestival.org, along with a sample of your work. An mp3 of you reading would be handy, text will do if that’s not possible, both would be ideal. Quality isn’t an issue, just record a voice note on your phone and send us that. Something that gives us an idea of your style.

We’ll let you know if you’ve got a place ASAP. Do it. Or tell someone else to. As the great sage Marshall Mathers warned us, you only get one shot…

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They arrested my high-school guitarist

You can tell there’s pre-election tension in Malaysia when they start locking up writers. On Tuesday, Australian-educated political publisher Ezra Zaid was arrested and brought in front of a judge, where a date for him to be charged was set for July.

For Malaysia observers, a move against Ezra’s ZI Publications was hardly a surprise. In a country where official censorship remains heavy-handed, ZI releases the kind of books that politicians would prefer were not available.

It is not strictly an advocacy publisher, offering short story collections, trivia, even a memoir from Prime Minister Mahathir’s daughter on her vigil during her father’s illness. Among them, though, are critical discussions of Malaysia’s political and social systems, parliament, and internal racism, along with translations from contentious overseas writers. Last year I edited Zan Azlee’s Operation Nasi Kerabu, about the Islamic insurgency in Thailand’s south; Zan’s documentary film on the subject had been banned in Malaysia, leading ZI to propose a book adaptation. It is emblematic of the publisher’s approach: where government frowns upon access to a subject, ZI has moved to facilitate it.

The other reason for ZI to attract political displeasure is perversely also one of the factors protecting it. The company’s initials represent Ezra’s father Zaid Ibrahim, a former MP, senator, government minister, and founder of the country’s most powerful law firm, who opened the publishing house in 2007 before relinquishing ownership on his promotion to the ministry. Zaid’s formidable reputation and influence have played their part in keeping the publisher’s efforts unhindered. At the same time, he has attracted more political opprobrium than perhaps anyone bar opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim.

Zaid was originally a federal MP for the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, and was made senator and Minister for Law in 2008. Six months later, the government arrested journalist Tan Hoon Cheng, opposition politician Teresa Kok, and political blogger Raja Petra Kamarudin under the Internal Security Act (ISA), a colonial-era law instated for use against communists, that allows indefinite detention without charge. Zaid sensationally resigned in protest, an unprecedented move for a senator, and initially joined Anwar’s opposition, before eventually leaving to take charge of a third political party, Kita.

Resentment of Zaid by his former party retains the intensity reserved for turncoats, while he has become something of a folk hero to Malaysian progressives. Of course a publishing house run by his son would be closely watched, especially one that has published three of Zaid’s books, including a critique of Malaysia’s sprawling monarchies launched just last week. Nor is it surprising that, despite Zaid’s profile, intimidatory moves are finally being made against ZI. What was unexpected was that Ezra’s arrest was not carried out by civil police but by religious authorities, in a system where the two operate independently.

The charges threatened against Ezra are not over political material, but would be made under sharia law, over Islamic scholar Irshad Manji’s book Allah, Liberty and Love. The daughter of Indian and Egyptian parents, born in Uganda and raised in Canada, Manji has written several books encouraging the liberal development of Islamic thought. Her religious critics are less concerned with her ideas than the fact that she is openly gay. People like these, says The Jakarta Post, will only view Manji “as an avid promoter of homosexuality in Muslim communities”.

Yet the book’s English version was released in Malaysia — where English is so widely spoken as to be a de facto official language — almost a year ago without incident. Foment only began with ZI’s recent release of a Malay translation. In the first fortnight of May, events on Manji’s promotional tour of Indonesia were attacked by hardline Muslim protestors, and others were forcibly cancelled.

By May 19, Malaysian minister Jamil Khir was ordering that Manji should not be allowed to hold her planned tour events there either. Other critics joined in. Ezra, speaking at Zaid’s recent book launch, responded that “these comments are based on an absolute fact that none of these persons had read the book and therein lies the problem”. Zaid dismissed the possibility of the book being banned. “It is not something a modern democracy does… Only North Korea bans books.”

Two days later the Home Ministry announced the ban, on the basis that the book was “believed to have elements that can deviate Muslims from their faith, Islamic teachings and elements which insulted Islam”. Religious authorities (JAWI) began seizing copies from bookshop shelves.

Ezra was on the offensive the same day. “[We are] considering all legal options, which includes filing a suit for judicial review against Jawi’s actions, together with a claim for damages arising from the sales the publisher has lost as a consequence of their illegal actions,” he said in a press release. “[W]e published this book in the spirit of free inquiry — incidentally, something which Islam itself cherishes — and acting strictly in accordance with our right to free speech and expression as guaranteed by Article 10(1)(a) of the Federal Constitution.”

On May 29, Selangor’s state religious police (JAIS) arrived at the offices of ZI Publications. Ezra’s immediate defence was to get the word out on Twitter. “Selangor getting in on the act,” he tweeted. “JAIS hv just dropped by office. In a group of 20 (fashionable that way). Taking books, n maybe me too.”

They did both: 180 copies of the book in custody along with its publisher. The latter kept his cool, tweeting updates from custody. “They must’ve gotten the friendly, professional types to send from JAIS. All suited up, slick facial hair — oddly impressed.” Then later, from the courtroom, “Thx for the good wishes. Lawyer @nizambashir will be here with me. Hope this wraps up soon, hvnt had lunch.” Released on bail, he now has to hold his good humour for at least another six weeks, to see where these charges end up.

Whatever the justifications, it is hard to see this as anything but a case of political opportunism. While Malaysia’s federal election could be called as late as next March, it was expected to come in the next couple of months, with Prime Minister Najib Razak’s popularity rebounding after weathering various scandals. Nonetheless, his BN colleagues would be nervous. 2008 was bad for them, as five state governments and over a third of parliamentary seats fell to the opposition.

These unimpressive-sounding numbers were in fact of great significance, forming BN’s worst election result in history. The same coalition has ruled for Malaysia’s entire 55 years of independence. Since that first Merdeka Day in 1957, the country has had just six Prime Ministers. 2012, at last, sees the very real prospect of BN finally being levered from power.

This means that whatever tactics can be used probably will, and Ezra’s arrest could benefit BN in several ways. First, where Zaid is a well-known face for progressive politics, arresting his son for supposedly disrespecting Islam is a solid divide-and-conquer move. The opposition is based on the uneasy alliance between Anwar’s progressive PKR and the highly conservative Islamist PAS, whose only real common ground is the wish to finally be rid of Barisan Nasional.

Second, even targeting less religious voters, moral outrage is always welcome in the lead-up to election time. Our values are under threat, our way of life is being eroded, things that change are scary, vote for stability. It’s a political condom, donned in a hurry to desensitise both sides and keep the wielder safe. And like a condom, even something so transparent can be amazingly effective.

Third, it sends a timely warning to those writing and thinking in ways that the government might not appreciate. In Malaysia, the intimidation of writers and journalists is a regular occurrence, but a little refresher course never goes astray. The result, as Zan Azlee summed up in his book, is that “self-censorship is more the problem than any official counterpart. Editors, news producers and journalists all tend to censor their own stories … The way the ISA has been used against journalists is a calculated and cynical attempt to intimidate everyone in the media.”

For now, Ezra Zaid remains free on bail. But with the charges against him yet to be made, the voice of dissenting opinion being further muffled, and an election that could be a national turning point yet to come, it will pay to keep a close eye on the Selangor religious authorities in the weeks and months to come.

First published on Crikey, June 1 2012.

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