Australia: a backwards country, going further backwards

Devolution_zps5c30acaaLast weekend, whilst driving in the Melbourne northern burbs, my wife’s phone rang.

It was friends of ours, recently back from a holiday in Europe and they had big news. They had gotten engaged in Paris.

They had been together for a number of years and we were delighted to hear they had tied the knot.

But then the realisation struck home that they cannot legally marry in this country, because Australia does not allow gay marriage –  they are a lesbian couple.

For a very brief period in December last year, it was legal for gay couples to wed in the ACT. Rather than embrace this bold move forward, the Commonwealth government successfully appealed the territory laws that had been in force for less than a week. No sooner were  gay couples saying “I do” then their marriage certificates were being gleefully stomped upon by conservative bureacrats.

This is the country we live in.

These are 17 countries where gay marriage is legal with Scotland the latest to the join the list of enlightened nations earlier this year.

First to allow gay marriage was Holland way back in 2000, the others are: England (2013), Wales (2013), France (2013), New Zealand (2013), Uruguay (2013), Denmark (2012), Argentina (2010), Portugal (2010), Iceland (2010), Sweden (2009), Norway (2009), South Africa (2006), Spain (2005), Canada (2005) and Belgium (2003).

Yes, even the country of my birth, South Africa, a developing country with many social issues, has recognised that people of the same-sex have the legal right to become husband and wife, but not in Australia. Prime minister Tony Abbott is vehemently opposed to gay marriage despite, his own sister Virginia being in a gay relationship.

Asylum seekers

This is not an isolated backwards step, Australia is moving backwards in many disturbing and insidious ways.

Our foreign minister, Scott Morrison recently drank champagne with his Cambodian colleagues after agreeing to send refugees that arrive by boat to Cambodia in a grubby “cash for people” deal that treats people like livestock.

Cambodia, one of the poorest and most corrupt countries in the world will take Australia’s unwanted refugees who are already living in secret squalor on the impoverished island of Nauru.

What will Cambodia get out of this – $40 million and the promise of more money if they take more people. At the same time, Australia has washed its hands clean of its commitment to provide a safe haven for genuine refugees in what Amnesty International has labelled “a new low in Australia’s deplorable and inhumane treatment of asylum seekers”.

This is just the tip of the iceberg: The 2014-15 Federal Budget, the first under Joe Hockey, cut Australia’s refugee and humanitarian program from 20,000 to 13,750 places and reduced its aid spending by $7.6 billion over five years.

Free speech squashed

Rather than enshrine freedom of speech as he had promised in opposition, Tony Abbott has done the opposite.

Journalists and bloggers now face up to 10 years in jail for doing their jobs, providing information about the secret activities of government organisations, even if their stories are in the public’s interest.  This is not all, the new national security laws also make it easier for security agencies to access personal computers and spy on Australians overseas, the very violations of individual privacy, that NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed were happening on an industrial scale in the US, UK and Australia.

And while the government eventually backed away from moves by attorney General George Brandis’s love-child – plans to water down protections under the Racial Discrimination Act that would have made Australia a protected haven for Holocaust deniers and racists (legal to offend, insult, humiliate someone based on their race or ethnicity), the fact that they were drafted in the first place, speaks volumes about our retreat from enlightenment.

Other backwards movements

These are but three examples, there are many more:

Savage reductions in funding for impoverished aboriginal communities, scrapping of the two-year carbon tax, which actually worked to reduce carbon emissions  in exchange for support for the coal industry, money pulled from the national broadcaster the ABC forcing the likely cancellation of important investigative journalism programs, a $7 GP co-payment that will hurt the poorest in society. The list goes on.

It’s a depressing state of affairs for those who cherish Australia as a forward-thinking, first-world nation, that values multi-culturalism, basic human decency and a “fair go”.

As for my gay friends who are now engaged,  there’s always New Zealand as a wedding option – a country that’s not just beating us at rugby.

For a far more erudite article on Tony Abbott and his government, read David Marr’s excellent article in The Monthly here.

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Edward Snowden vs the NSA: who do you believe?

edward snowden2Conservatives, spy chiefs, President Obama, right-wing administrations, the Abbott government: they were all choking on their corn flakes when the Pulitzer Prize, the most prestigious award in journalism, was handed to the UK’s The Guardian  and the Washington Post for their articles about the surveillance activities of the National Security Agency (NSA) based on the leaks of Edward Snowden.

Even more galling for them would have been that the Pulitzer Prize was awarded in the category of “public service” for the newspapers’ “aggressive reporting to spark a debate about the relationship between the government and the public over issues of security and privacy” – since they consider Snowden to have done a great disservice to the public, even putting unnamed lives at risk.

It is hard to think of a figure that divides public opinion  more than Edward Snowden: “hero”, “whistleblower”, “traitor”, “treasonist”. These are the words used to describe the 30-year-old former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and NSA contractor, now in hiding in Russia.

The US government has charged him with espionage and revoked his passport, at the same time Norwegian parliamentarians Snorre Valen and Baard Vegar Solhjell have nominated Snowden for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Australia’s attorney general George Brandis called Snowden “criminally dishonest, treacherous and having put Australian lives at risk” in a speech in parliament. In response to Brandis, Greens Senator Scott Ludlam called Snowden a “whistleblower who I hold in highest regard”.

Where you stand on Edward Snowden defines your views on things like individual freedom, the right to privacy, the role and responsibility of government, access to information and democracy itself.

The Snowden leaks uncovered a hidden world of secret government activities in the US, UK and Australia including:

  • the bulk collection of phone records of US citizens by telecom Verizon including calls made to other countries, regardless of whether they are suspected of wrong-doing.
  • that the UK and US governments had access to user data held by Google, Facebook, Intel and others, including audio and video chats, photographs, e-mails, documents, and connection logs.
  • that the NSA monitored the phone conversations of 35 world leaders including German chancellor  Angela Merkel, – a supposed Western ally
  • That the Australian government listened in on the phone conversations of Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s and his wife.
  • that the NSA “spied on the staff of prominent human rights organisations” including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch;
  • that there were programs like Prism or  XKeyscore, clandestine mass electronic surveillance data mining programs, which use sophisticated techniques to screen “trillions” of private communications.

These leaks highlighted the secret activities of the NSA, depicting it as a shadowy government organisation resembling “Big Brother” as described in George Orwell’s hugely influential 1949 novel “1984”. It was this book which coined the adjective “Orwellian” to mean official deception, secret surveillance, and manipulation.

It is not that surprising then that in the wake of the revelations about the NSA, sales of Orwell’s prophetic dystopian novel skyrocketed.

I regard Edward Snowden as a hero, an incredibly brave man who has sacrificed his own personal freedom to expose a government organisation obsessed with power, secrecy, data and control. Were it not for Snowden, the full extent of NSA activities and those of its UK and Australian counterparts would never been known.

But what of the other argument – the one that beats its fists against its chest proclaiming Snowden  a thief, traitor and criminal?

My own newspaper, the Australian Financial Review published an interview with General Keith Alexander, a spy and former head of the NSA, who not surprisingly slammed the Edward Snowden leaks.

This of course is the equivalent of asking the CEO of McDonald’s if he agreed that hamburgers were healthy.

According to General Alexander, the NSA is a “noble organisation that is “protecting our civil liberties and privacy” and that saves lives.

He says the very reports that won The Guardian and Washington Post the Pulitzer Prize are wrong and that it is a “fabrication” and “misperception” that the NSA is “listening into everyone’s calls, and reading everyone’s emails”.

General Alexander says the NSA has been “demonized” and painted as a “villain” by these very articles. when in fact the NSA is full of “honest, well-intentioned, hard-working, and patriotic people”.

The actions of Edward Snowden and the subsequent reports by The Guardian and the Washington Post, General Alexander says “have put so many lives at risk”.

The job of the NSA, General Alexander says, is to “stand watch” over our safety, which he says it does within legal means.

Of course he cannot actually tell us  the details of what the NSA is doing because that would compromise its role. In essence, we just have to trust him and the NSA.

Or if not him, then perhaps UK foreign minister William Hague who said in an interview that reports British intelligence agency Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) was gathering intelligence from phones and online sites “should not concern people who have nothing to hide” – a phrase that could have come straight out of an Orwell novel or perhaps the East German Stasi or KGB.

So do you believe General Alexander that the NSA is acting responsibly that the “overwhelming evidence falls in favour of the legality and legitimacy of what NSA has done”?

Or do you believe Edward Snowden, when he says the NSA is intent on “gathering intelligence where ever it can, by whatever means possible”?

There is of course a third view  – that you accept that the NSA  and other secretive government agencies are – as Snowden says – acting way beyond their remit, but in the name of protecting its citizens, that the end justifies the means.

But if you do, then you must also accept that your right to individual privacy is gone and that you are comfortable with the idea of a “Big Brother” watching over you as you type your email or make a phone call.

Perhaps it’s worth remember these chilling words of O’Brien, a member of the inner party who attempts to trick Winston Smith, the doomed hero of Orwell’s 1984:

There will be no loyalty, except loyalty towards the Party. There will be no love, except the love of Big Brother. There will be no laughter, except the laugh of triumph over a defeated enemy. There will be no art, no literature, no science. When we are omnipotent we shall have no more need of science. There will be no distinction between beauty and ugliness. There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always — do not forget this, Winston — always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — for ever.’