Human Rights and Halloween

Human rights billboard Image provided by Fr Rod Bower of Gosford Anglican Church

You always have to look for the silver lining; like the Queensland Parliament introducing a Human Rights Act on the same day (31st October) that people were walking the streets dressed as ghouls and zombies, reminding us that Christmas is just 55 days away.

Christmas Island is just around the corner too – well, it’s precisely 1,550 kms north-west of Perth. But it is an Australian territory, unlike Nauru and Manus Island.

I mention human rights in the context of offshore processing of asylum seekers to make the point that Australia is one of the few democracies that does not have a so-called Bill of Rights.

Victoria and the ACT have their own Human Rights acts and Queensland’s new act will become law next year. But there is no specific Federal law. In case you did not know, Queensland’s Human Rights Act will replace a hit-and-miss system in which individual liberties are said to be protected under the constitution and by common law. The Federalists have always argued that the latter is sufficient protection to ensure freedom of speech, privacy, equality and such like. The anti-Federalists in Queensland have been quietly pushing for this new act for the last four or five years.

The subject came up more than once when former Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs was in town for Outspoken, a literary event that draws a mixed crowd of avid readers. Triggs, as one would imagine, was well aware that Queensland was considering introducing a Human Rights act and there was a bit of discussion as to what form that might take. As she mentioned at the time, she hoped this new Act would protect indigenous culture (and it does).

Queensland’s act mimics Victoria’s laws in many ways – it protects 23 human rights as basic as the right to freedom from forced work, to equality, the right to life and the right to peaceful assembly and freedom of association (remember Campbell Newman’s bikie laws?).The Australian Government should make a note of this one: ‘protection from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment’, in terms of refugees being kept on Nauru and Manus Island.

If this new Act is set to enhance the protection and privacy of individuals, will this extend to trick and treaters coming down the driveway, uninvited? This did not happen in our street, the Halloween revellers opting to approach only those houses suitably adorned with spooky lights, cobwebs, pumpkins and other faux-accoutrements of a distinctly American tradition.

Protecting the privacy of individuals should surely extend to preventing real estate agents, politicians, Clive Palmer and the NBN from shoving unwanted solicitations in your letterbox?

Should it not also cover the telephone ringing at 6.50pm with the chatter of a call centre in the background and a long pause while someone realises yours is the next cold call they must attend to (by which time you have hung up).

ABC News provided a handy guide to the new Act, which meant that although I downloaded it, I do not necessarily have to wade my way through all 88 pages of the Act. The main objects are to:

  • to protect and promote human rights; and
  • to help build a culture in the Queensland public sector

that respects and promotes human rights; and

  • to help promote a dialogue about the nature, meaning

and scope of human rights.”

Under this new Act, the Anti-Discrimination Commission will be re-named the Queensland Human Rights Commission and as such receive complaints from the public. The specifics of the Act ensure that the Parliament, the government and more importantly, the bureaucracy that administers Queensland’s laws will have to comply with them.

Dan Rogers from Caxton Legal told the ABC the new act would provide a broad spectrum of individual rights. He said Victoria and the ACT had benefited from having similar legislation for over a decade.

“When government departments deliver services, they’re more likely to comply with our fundamental human rights.”

Rogers gave examples of when these rights may be compromised (cameras recording conversations or abuse of search powers by police and government inspectors).

Queensland Council of Civil Liberties president Michael Cope told the ABC that Australian States were some of the last in the world not yet be covered by a human rights act.

“We know from history that democracies can quickly change from being democracies to something else. It only took Hitler six or seven years to transform Germany.”

Predictably, the Queensland Opposition described the new Act as a ‘distraction’ from the real issue (the economy) and harped on about the time and money spent implementing the new Act. (Victoria’s Human Rights Act has been estimated to cost 50c per person, per year).

Most democracies have a bill of rights of some type and 192 member States have become signatories to the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights since it was established in 1948. There are eight notable hold-outs: South Africa, Belorussia, Ukraine, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Saudi Arabia, Yugoslavia and Russia.

Since we mentioned Nauru in the context of Australia’s decision to use the tiny island as a holding depot for asylum seekers and refugees, here’s what we know about its place in the world.

Of the nine core United Nations human rights treaties, Nauru, which has been a member since 1999, has ratified or acceded to four of them. They include the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention against Torture. In response to recommendations from other States and human rights monitoring bodies, Nauru ratified the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees in June 2011. Just so we know.

The UN has gone to a lot of trouble to set up a portal to teach children the basics of human rights. It’s not a bad place for adults to digest a summary of the obvious and not-so obvious things we regard as rights.

Item 19 is of particular interest to me and my 27 readers (and an old blue heeler called Herbie who chases his tail when he hears FOMM go ‘ping’ in the inbox):

We all have the right to make up our own minds, to think what we like, to say what we think, and to share our ideas with other people.

That would be of small comfort to journalists jailed last year by regimes that do not brook public dissent. A record 262 journalists were jailed in 2017, amid an aggressive crackdown by government authorities, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

In this free-ranging discussion about human rights you may have noticed my own bias creeping in about Halloween. I just do not care for the pervasive infiltration of American ‘culture’ into the Australian-way-of-life. Pumpkins were meant to be cooked and eaten, mate, by me or the dog.

And don‘t get me started on those Council workers cluttering up the only roundabout in the village with a truck and crane adorning the Flame Tree with shiny Christmas baubles and fake presents.

“Mate, you’re infringing on my right to freedom of movement,” the grumpy septuagenarian hollered out the car window.

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Septuagenarian motorbike dreams

She who also used to ride a motorbike, Mt Coot-tha, circa 1970

I’ve been having recurrent (and happy) motorbike dreams lately, a few days short of a significant birthday. I had no idea what septuagenarian meant. Also, as my spell-checker immediately informed me, I did not know how to spell the word either. A septuagenarian is a person between the ages of 70 and 79.

There’s a lot of this about, with the quintessential baby boomers (those born in the immediate post-war years (1946-1950), throwing big parties and telling people not to bring presents. Some have a late flirtation with their youth, buying a motorbike they couldn’t afford then or taking bucket list cruises to exotic climes.

We graduated from ‘sixty is the new fifty’ to feebly claiming that seventy is the new sixty. A few say I could pass for that, but they don’t see me in the morning, in the harsh light of the ensuite mirror.

Septuagenarianism causes one to reflect on mortality. Indeed, it makes one think of times when a premature exit was on the cards. In my case, this was a bad motorbike accident in 1969. If you fall off a motorbike at speed or hit something, you are always going to come off second-best.

A study by the Federal Department of Transport found that motorcyclists are 41 times more likely to sustain a serious injury than car occupants. Moreover, the study found that 10% of motorbike accident victims were not wearing crash helmets at the time.

Not that the statistics put people off riding motorbikes or indeed competing in motor racing, be it on dirt tracks or professional circuits. The Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries estimates there are one million registered motorcycles in Australia, and twice that number of off-road bikes.

My accident (it traumatises me still to recount) resulted in smashing both kneecaps, breaking my jaw and a lip laceration requiring 37 stitches. The latter was the least of my problems. I had both kneecaps removed and lay in a hospital bed with both legs in plaster for months. I became close to the pigeons roosting on the roof outside my narrow window. And I took up studying racing form to pass the time.

It is a good thing the brain does not retain the memory of pain. Let’s just say when the IRA decided on kneecapping as a form of punishment, they were inflicting great pain and future disability on their victims.

In those days, hospitals routinely doled out synthetic forms of morphine ‘PRN’ (Latin for as required – pro re nata). After several months, they weaned me off Omnipon (synthetic morphine) as my body was starting to crave the drug. Thus began a difficult period.

We can skip over the bad parts, which are chronicled in a highly romanticised song, Motorbike Dreams.

After getting out of hospital, I went to a (physical) rehab unit where daily therapy aimed to get my legs back to normal. As those who have had a patellectomy would know, full flexion is rare. I kneel with difficulty, cannot squat and take extra care to avoid having awkward tumbles. Apart from not having much of a head for heights, I avoid climbing ladders beyond the third step and have never been on the roof of our house.

Rehab and the sci-fi hallucination

Rehab was a hoot, after four months of being cooped up in a public hospital. It was only when I first got on crutches and struggled up the halls of the orthopaedic ward I stopped feeling sorry for myself. There in rooms by themselves or shared with others, was a coterie of ex-bikies, all of them in various degrees of pain and disability far worse than mine.

In rehab, I learned to play pool, always being defeated by a Vietnam vet whose left arm was frozen horizontally at chest height. It made the ideal place to rest a pool cue but was otherwise quite inconvenient.

This impish Polynesian chap, whose name now escapes me, decided one night we should all disobey the curfew and slip down the road to the pub. The rehab unit was located in a dodgy south Auckland suburb. But as Tipu (let’s call him that) said, “Otara’s not as bad as it’s painted, Bro.”

We had a great night out, temporarily forgetting the daily struggle to regain our version of normal fitness. I dimly recall a fabulously rowdy public bar rendition of Ten Guitars (New Zealand’s unofficial anthem).

In July, the surgeon who operated on my right leg decided to try manual manipulation, in a last-ditch effort to improve on 97 degrees. An ambulance came; I was taken back to hospital, given an injection of pethidine and then anaesthetised. I woke up in recovery 20 minutes later, with the surgeon shaking his head. The ambulance took me back to the rehab unit (I’d had a shot of pethidine, remember). The rehab crew were gathered in the rec room watched a flickering black and white RCA TV set. In my altered state it seemed like a bad sci-fi movie.

That’s one small step for a man,” said Neil Armstrong, as he stepped on to the surface of the moon, “One giant leap for mankind.”

‘Tipu, mate, is this for real?”

He grinned at my dilated pupils and patted me on the shoulder.

“It’s all fake mate, shot on a Hollywood film set.”

Maybe that’s when the rumour began?

By the way, if you didn’t know, there are (still) persistent myths about the Apollo 11 moon landing being faked. In 2008, the TV series Mythbusters came up with one of the more entertaining attempts to debunk the un-debunkable.

Later in ’69 I was discharged from rehab, having made four wooden collection bowls on a foot-operated lathe. It was a sad day, as we had all formed a bond forged by physical adversity.

I went back into the world, to a series of unsuitable jobs where my physical limitations became painfully obvious. The hardest one was steam-cleaning refrigerated railway wagons at 4am. It wasn’t a difficult job once you had clambered up into the wagon, but getting there was pretty problematic.

Just try going for a week without squatting when performing daily tasks and you will have some idea how I adapted to ‘bottom-drawer’ world. No complaints here, though. I got off lightly, as people who have had their kneecaps removed typically develop arthritis and other ailments as time wears on. As a physio once told me, “You’re a lucky lightweight”.

In my 40s, playing soccer with the kids at a birthday picnic, I did the quick about-turn and felt something go ‘pop’. Weeks of pain and hobbling later I ended up in the rooms of an orthopaedic surgeon. He examined the X-rays and asked me to perform a few basic knee movements.

“Is this coming good on its own, do you think?”

“Yeah, I think.”

“Well, forty year old knees with the surgeries you’d had, if it’s coming good, I’m not touching it.”

I give my knees a good talking to, most days, and keep them going with daily walking, weekly yoga and by avoiding the scourge of the over-60s (having a fall).

“Good and faithful servants,” I mentally tell my knees every morning, “Carry me through another day.”

I don’t ride motorbikes anymore, but I’ll never forget the free-wheeling euphoria of a downhill run. And I still have motorbike dreams.









Self-service gets our enterprise for a bargain

Self-service checkout, photo by eltpics

You may call me a peevish old man, but these self-service supermarket checkouts give me the pip. I only encounter them when venturing out of the village, as our service-oriented IGA does not as yet have automated check-outs.

Not so a certain Brisbane supermarket which, around 5pm, seems to have nobody staffing its numerous checkouts and only one person ‘helping’ people scan their own groceries. I usually ignore the self-service corner and will wait an inordinate time to be served by a human being. Last time I was in the 12 items or less line at the same supermarket, the poor woman was switching back and forth between checkout customers and those at the cigarette counter.

Management textbooks would tell you this is successful multi-tasking and making efficient use of a staff member over what is probably a meal break. Decency would say put two people on at this location.

American Facebook page Union Thugs has a bit of a campaign going against self-service, observing that the machines (a) they kill jobs (b) they do not contribute to payroll tax and (c) they are really not that convenient.

The latter was certainly true when I returned from shopping in the city a few weeks back to find I’d charged myself twice for the same item. So back I went, burning more fossil fuel, to queue up at the lightly staffed counter where one person was multi-tasking between selling cigarettes and dealing with complaints like mine.

IGA Maleny director Rob Outridge knows the downsides of self-service checkouts but can see a time when he may be forced to introduce them. Supermarkets operate on skinny margins and the biggest fixed cost is wages, which keep on rising. So while Maleny IGA still exclusively hires people to serve at the checkouts, there may be a time when competition and the bottom line force his hand.

“The problem is your labour costs keep going up and there is no increase in productivity.”

I suspect Rob Outridge knew I was going to take a Bolshevik approach to the subject of automation doing people out of jobs. Nevertheless, he handed me his card and in that pleasant, management-by-walking-around way of his said: “Just let me know if you have any other questions.”

It’s not just that a machine replaces a worker. You (the customer) are doing the checkout job yourself – for nothing. Of course it does not stop there; we do the job of a retail employee at the ATM, the fuel pump, at toll points and just about anything someone would help you with offline is now done (by you) online.

The online world has transformed the way businesses interact with customers. In the online world there are myriad stories of businesses getting our enterprise for a bargain, as they con us into signing up for electronic bus and train cards, gadgets on your windshield which go ‘ping’ when you pass through the toll gates and so on. Last time I parked under the Brisbane Convention and Exhibition and Centre, I had to go to a machine and pay for the parking then pop it in the slot at the boom gate. There were no attendants to be seen.

It hardly seems like nine years since the toll booths closed on the Gateway Bridge and Logan Motorway. There was something refreshing about that brief interaction when you paused at the collection point and tossed your coins into the tub. When the electronic toll system Go Via was introduced in 2009, 100 toll collectors were made redundant, with 22 moving into management jobs within Go Via. Former toll collector Sharmaine Phelan told the Brisbane Times she had a tear in her eye on the last day.

“Over the years I have been here I’ve met some lovely people, some that I’ve kept in touch with who have come through the toll.”

Tolls were collected manually on the Gateway Bridge for 23 years. As a motorist, you always had to be sure to have a pile of coins ready in the console, but that was all you needed. Today, you need a beeping gadget on your windshield and an online account that has to be kept topped up or you will get a letter in the post demanding payment. Along the way, a system of debt-collecting was invented to deal with people who either didn’t have a bleeping thing on their windshield or kept forgetting to top up their account. If they are people who also ignore mail and such, then eventually the Department of Transport gets involved and pings you for non-payment of tolls.

How is that an improvement on making Sharmaine Phelan’s day, then?

Fuel stations have been exploiting their customers in this fashion for decades. Self-service fuel stations began to spread in the US and Australia in the 1970s, although at a faster rate in America. Mind you, there is still one state (New Jersey) that refuses to allow customers to pump their own gas.

Australia caught on to automated fuel service in the 1970s and the reach has been pervasive. Even in the remote outback you have to pump your own fuel and, between the hours of 9pm and 5am, you often have to go in and pay for it first. One of the downsides of self-service fuel (from the fuel retail owner’s perspective), is the minority of motorists who fill up and just drive away.

Imagine my surprise earlier this year when driving into Longreach (at night) in an urgent search for a fuel station. The only place open was not actually open but had a bowser where you could use your credit card to (a) enter how much fuel you wanted and (b) press the Pay Now button.

You might remember the rockabilly song Harold’s Super Service made popular by Merle Haggard in 1970. I suspect the writer (Bobby Wayne) was perhaps taking a dig at the about to be modernised industry with his song, in which the owner of an old Model A drives in to Harold’s Super Service and insists on getting his money’s worth.

“Gimme 50 cents worth of regular (pronounced ‘reglar’)
Check my oil too if you don’t mind.
Put some air in my tires won’t you mister,
Clean my windows too if you have time”

The National Advanced Convenience and Fuel Retailing magazine (NACS) explains how automation gained the upper hand in the US. In 1969, self-service gasoline accounted for only 16% of sales in the US. By 1982, 72% of gas sold in the US was self-service and it had climbed to 90% by 2011.

I was amazed to find, amidst the proliferating supermarket-owned and franchise outlets, that there are still a handful of petrol stations in Australia offering old-fashioned driveway service. You’ll have to read Mandy Turner’s article to find out where they are, though.

Maybe it’s just that I’m approaching a certain age, but I secretly yearn for that era when the petrol station attendant filled your tank, checked your oil and washed the windscreen at the same time – just like the song.

Harold’s Super Service, Merle Haggard and band (listener warning – it’s an earworm).

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About Nauru your petitioner humbly prays

Refugee child ‘Roze’ on Nauru, provided by World Vision Australia

I could count on the toes of my feet the number of petitions I have signed in this life, but I could not refuse the Kids off Nauru campaign. More than 100 human rights groups, churches, charities and organisations, including World Vision, Amnesty International and the Australian Lawyers Alliance are behind Kids off Nauru.

The e-petition to Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten leaves no room for negotiation. Children in detention on Nauru, about 40 of who were born on the island, have witnessed lip stitching, self-immolation and other suicide attempts. Many have developed traumatic withdrawal syndrome, characterised by resigning from all activities that support a normal life. The Australian Medical Association has called for immediate action to assure the health and wellbeing of those on Nauru.

As one of the NGOs involved in the campaign, Plan International says, “This can’t continue, not on our watch”.

“We’ve seen report after report of children who are in such despair, for whom life in detention is so miserable, that they have withdrawn socially, stopped eating and even attempted suicide,” Plan International said. “In August a 12-year-old girl tried to set herself on fire.”

The petitioners want all 120* children and their families off Nauru by November 20, 2018. The date is not random – it is Universal Children’s Day.

You all know this shameful story, where the Australian Government re-invented an offshore processing solution for people who’d mostly arrived without permission by boat, seeking refuge in the big open country they had heard was egalitarian and tolerant.

Nauru, a small island north-east of PNG and the Solomon Islands, was once known for extracting and selling phosphate for fertiliser. The resource is exhausted, so the Nauruan government could hardly refuse the lucrative offer from the Australian Government.

It’s difficult to get an accurate count* of children on Nauru, quoted variously as between 106 and 126. Meanwhile the official number from the Australian Government is 22. But wait, the fine print refers only to children in the Nauru Regional Processing Centre (Australia’s responsibility). Other refugee children are accommodated in centres run by the Nauruan Government. The latter is not at all transparent about the welfare of refugee children and their parents. A New Zealand TV reporter was detained briefly when reporting from the Pacific Forum because she went ‘off reservation’ to talk to refugees “without going through proper channels”.

I’d go and see for myself but they want $8,000 for a journalist visa.

Anglican Bishop Phillip Huggins wrote to then Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton seeking clarification of numbers published on the department’s website.

The (eventual) reply from Mr Dutton and Huggins’s interpretation of the answers is worth reading to get a perspective.

Bishop Huggins concluded that the harsh reality is that there were (in August 2018), 120 refugee children in Nauru (some have been resettled in the last month). Some are being assessed for resettlement in America; some may eventually be resettled in New Zealand.

Let’s ask the obvious question: New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern and her coalition partner Winston Peters have offered to take up to 150 refugees from Nauru. Former Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull rejected the offer to resettle the Nauru refugees, making the woolly argument that this would only make New Zealand attractive to people smugglers. It may surprise readers to know that the New Zealand offer to resettle refugees goes back to the administration of former PM John Key (2008-2016).

The transfer of asylum seekers to offshore processing centres in the Pacific was first introduced by the Howard (Coalition) Government in 2001.Here’s an edited summary of what followed.

Seven months after Kevin Rudd was sworn in as Prime Minister in 2008, the last remaining asylum seekers on Nauru were transferred to Australia, ending the Howard Government’s controversial ‘Pacific Solution’.

In July 2010, then Prime Minister, Julia Gillard revealed that the Government had begun having discussions about establishing a regional processing centre for the purpose of receiving and processing irregular entrants to the region. Importantly, only 25 asylum seekers had travelled by boat to Australia to seek asylum in the 2007–08 financial year. By the time Gillard made her announcement in July 2010, more than 5,000 people had come by boat to Australia to seek asylum.

Gillard acknowledged that the number of asylum seekers arriving by boat to Australia was ‘very, very minor’ but she identified a number of reasons why the processing of asylum seekers in other countries was considered necessary, including:

  • to remove the financial incentive for the people smugglers to send boats to Australia;
  • to ensure that those arriving by boat do not get an unfair advantage over others;
  • to prevent people embarking on a voyage across dangerous seas with the ever present risk of death;
  • to prevent overcrowding in detention facilities in Australia.

Though it took another two years to secure arrangements, people began to be transferred to Nauru and PNG in the last quarter of 2012.

Two months before the 2013 federal election amidst growing support for the Opposition’s tougher border protection policies, newly appointed Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced that Australia had entered into a Regional Resettlement Arrangement with PNG. Under the arrangement, all (not just some) asylum seekers who arrived by boat would be transferred to PNG for processing and settlement in PNG and in any other participating regional State. Mr Rudd subsequently made a similar arrangement with Nauru.

Mr Rudd now says this was meant to be a temporary arrangement.

So he we are with a humanitarian crisis on our back door and as per usual, those clinging to slender majorities do not want to make brave, decent decisions which might cost them their seat at the next election.

Petitions are a form of protest known to exert moral authority; that is, they have no legal force. But the sheer weight of numbers can force social change. One example was the millions of signatures on a petition calling for the release of Nelson Mandela.

Before e-petitions and ‘clicktivism’ became the norm, government clerks charged with the receipt and storage of paper petitions had a job for life.

The Australian government receives on average 120 petitions a year, a large proportion of which are e-petitions. Activist group,, (, the biggest generator of e-petitions, has 50 million subscribers world-wide.

Nigel Gladstone, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, says 32,728 Australian petitions were started on the website since 2014. More than 3.5 million people signed their name to support campaigns such as reduced parking fees at NSW hospitals and marriage equality.

Professor of Political Sociology at the University of Sydney, Ariadne Vromen and Professor Darren Halpin of ANU collected data from to study online petitions over a four-year period.

“This form of political engagement is both mainstream and important,” Professor Vromen told the SMH. “In Australia Get-up were really the pioneers of using online petitions and that was a bit of a shock to the system, but politicians quickly became cynical.

“ is different because citizens can start their own thing, so it is different to an advocacy group starting something.”

So will the advocacy groups behind Kids off Nauru succeed in their mission to force the government to act by November 20? Let’s revisit this in a couple of months’ time.


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