Friday, November 19, 2010

Acts Of Crime Should Not Be Misconstrued As Acts Of War

They say that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. It’s an expression that I have never been comfortable with, because it can so easily be misused to legitimise what are otherwise quite simply criminal acts. Sure, we can all accept that Nelson Mandela was at one time considered by his own country to be a terrorist, only to later be hailed as a hero. Of course, the truth is that Nelson Mandela really was a freedom fighter who represented the oppressed majority of his countrymen, and so it is easy to arrive at the judgement that he was not really a terrorist at all. It’s not quite so easy to dismiss the Palestinian suicide bombers who can also legitimately claim to be oppressed in their own land, but who are much harder for us to identify with. The tactics that they choose to employ are sufficiently horrific to erode any sympathy we might otherwise be tempted to feel.

In the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11 2001, the United States has introduced a range of new security measures and enacted laws which place greater controls over its own population. Australia, along with many other countries, has followed a similar path with laws which specify not only the physical acts of terrorism, but also the motivations behind it. To some degree, these are laws which are only a few steps away from making it illegal to hold certain beliefs, to say certain things, and to associate with certain people. The real risk, which needs to be weighed in the balance when considering such laws, is the prospect that they will effectively undermine the very freedoms and ideals that they purport to protect. It is this risk to free speech, and ultimately free thought, that prominent human rights lawyer Julian Burnside will address in a presentation at the State Library tonight.

Mr. Burnside will say in his speech, “The terrorist acts we all fear are also orthodox criminal offences. The important question is whether it is a good idea to create a range of offences which depend on a definition based on an ideological purpose, and which casts such a wide net using that definition as a starting point.” It is at this point in the speech where Mr. Burnside points out that our legal definition of terrorism would include not only Nelson Mandela, but also the rebels at the Eureka Stockade. His point is that the law itself is flawed, and could so easily be perverted to ensnare anyone who expresses dissent. He is right to consider this to be a threat to our civil liberties, and our right to freedom of speech, of assembly, and of thought itself.

But there is another flaw in our approach to terrorism. It has been a mistake to declare a “War on Terror” in the military sense, because it only serves to legitimise the purported political causes behind it, when really today’s terrorists do not serve any genuine cause. A war implies a contest between sovereign nations, or at the very least between legitimate competing interests. Declaring a “War on Terror” awards the terrorists a status they do not deserve when they are nothing more than psychopathic criminals who do not represent any recognised country or religion. Osama bin Laden could never be confused with a freedom fighter, and neither could Abu Bakar Bashir.

Just because people purport to be warriors of some kind does not mean that they really are, and acts of crime should not be misconstrued as acts of war.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

We Should Whinge About the Performance, Not The Pay Packet

There’s nothing better than to have a good whinge. We love it, we can’t get enough of it, and we can be pretty good at it. We whinge about bank profits, about the cost of living, and of course there is the old favourite, we whinge about politicians pay packets and perks. Even though these and many other topics might really be easy targets, we feel some justification for our indignation because there is a sense of righteousness about these perceived injustices. But, are we really whinging about the right things, or are we guilty of being so lazy that we just go for the cheap shots, rather than actually doing anything about these bugbears?

In the case of bank profits, is it really the size of the profit that upsets us? When you think about it, isn’t it really the feeling that those profits have come at our expense that bothers us? Surely, with such healthy profits those banks can afford to give us a better deal! Similarly, with the cost of living, isn’t our complaint really about our feeling that we have somehow been inadequately rewarded for our labours? What we really want is not so much cheaper goods, but a bigger pay packet. And that brings us to the politicians, who already have pay packets much bigger than most of the rest of us, but still seem to keep whinging themselves that they deserve more.

The Federal Government is currently in the process of reviewing politicians’ pay and perks. The idea is that many of the existing benefits such as the electoral allowance will be eliminated, and others such as travel more heavily restricted, in order to make the arrangements more transparent and the politicians more accountable. In return, it is proposed that the base pay for politicians will be increased from about $135 000 to around $170 000. Now that’s a big increase, more than the annual income of a substantial number of Australians, but is it actually something that we should be whinging about?

Every time we hear the politicians are getting a pay rise, or are looking for one, the immediate reaction is to howl them down with snarls of derision for already being paid more than they are worth. But what are we really complaining about? Surely, what really bothers us is not how much they are paid, but whether or not we believe they are giving us good value for money in the service they deliver. Surely, we should whinge about the performance, not the pay packet. Isn’t the idea that our politicians are not up to scratch the thing that really bothers us? And on that score it is fairly easy to judge that at least some of them are only there to make up the numbers. But that doesn’t mean all politicians should be considered to be in that category.

It can be a tough demanding job, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and if we want good people to do the job, they must be paid at least enough that they will not be spending all their time wondering how they will pay the bills at the end of the week. They need to spend their time worrying about running the country, not worrying about whether or not they can pay for the groceries. If we want good capable people to take on the great responsibility of running the country, we must be prepared to pay proper salaries which reflect both the demands and the responsibilities of the position.

After that, it’s up to us to make sure that we actually vote for the right people to live up to our expectations.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

More Than Just A Celebrity Story

It seems that every time there is any kind of bad publicity or scandal any where near the Royal Family, Australia’s Republicans seize the opportunity to question the relevance of the Monarchy. Why, they ask, should Australia have as its head of state a foreign Monarch whose own family are so frequently the cause for embarrassment, rather than one of our own citizens? Why should we persist with old fashioned arrangements which are relics of the colonial era, and an Empire which no longer exists? Isn’t it time that Australia finally cut the apron strings and stood on its own feet, dispensed with the Monarchy, and became a republic?

So often, these are the questions wheeled out when there is any sort of adverse media coverage of the Royal Family. In contrast, the official announcement of the engagement of Prince William and Kate Middleton seems to have left the Republicans without much to say. Perhaps they don’t see any mileage in trying to rain on the parade, and are reluctant to risk any kind of backlash, but it is interesting to stop for a moment and ask ourselves whether this Royal Engagement is of any special significance for Australians, or if it is simply another celebrity story to fill the pages of the tabloid magazines.

While Australia remains a Constitutional Monarchy, the Royal Family will remain relevant, perhaps not so much in themselves and their daily activities, but in the simple fact that they are there at all. For Australians, the relevance is in the constitutional arrangements which have served us well since the beginning of our nation. Our Constitutional Monarchy has provided us with a level of political stability and security which is matched by very few other countries. It means that our politicians are subject to constraints which prevent them from becoming despots, and that even the Prime Minister is simply the first among equals rather than a power unto him or herself.

There may well come a day when Australians decide to become a Republic, but it would be foolish in the extreme to do so simply for the sake of it, or because it is seen as some sort of declaration of independence. We already have our independence, and we have a constitutional system which works very well. If we are to contemplate changing that system it is imperative that we make very sure that the new system we create is actually better than the old one that we tear down. Until such a system is devised, there is no sound reason why the Constitutional Monarchy cannot continue to serve the Australian people.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


It’s always fun to make up new words, and it must be even more fun to see those words enter the mainstream vernacular to such an extent that they receive official recognition in the Oxford Dictionary. Of course, language is a living and evolving construct and it’s only natural that new words will spring out of new technologies, new discoveries, and new social phenomena. Many of these words are born out of practical necessity, some by sheer accident, and some out of a healthy sense of humour. To celebrate this continuing genesis of new terminology, the people at the Oxford American Dictionary add new words to the official list each year, and celebrate the occasion by selecting one in particular to be honoured as the “word of the year”.

Some of the new words that were in the running for this year’s award included “retweeet”, referring to the act of forwarding a twitter message to other users of that social network; “vuvuzela”, after the World Cup in South Africa introduced the world to this native musical instrument, although “musical” might be a bit of a stretch; and “bankster”, a combination of “banker” and “gangster” which requires no explanation, and might actually be redundant anyway. Then there is “Gleek” to describe a fan of the television show “Glee”; “webisode”, referring to television show episodes or spin-offs which are made specifically for the internet; and “Tea Party”, which is of course the political movement calling for tea with scones and jam to be reintroduced into American society.
But the winner of the Word Of The Year for 2010 is…. “refudiate”. Defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “refudiate: verb used loosely to mean "reject": she called on them to refudiate the proposal to build a mosque. [origin — blend of refute and repudiate], it is Sarah Palin who is responsible for bringing this word to popular attention. The Oxford editors pointed out that although Ms. Palin will be forever remembered for using this word, she is “by no means the first person to speak or write it”. Which only proves one thing: Apparentley, although Sarah Palin did actually say something memorable after all, it still wasn’t an original thought.