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report after report of children who are in such despair, for whom life in detention is so miserable, that they have withdrawn socially, stopped eating and even attempted suicide,” Plan International said.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, change.org, (https://www.change.org), 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 change.org 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 change.org 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.

“Change.org 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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Take me to your leader – the quest continues

(Leader image, old man in park taking time out from politics and spin), Bob Wilson circa 1978

Imagine a flying saucer lands in your back yard and an alien (drooling or not) alights.

“Take me to your leader,” it telepathically commands, as it is from an advanced civilisation, intent upon savings ours.

“Aw yeah, mate.” (pointing). “That’s our leader over there, the one in the striped designer shirt, mingling with the homeless folk.”

If you dig around on the Internet long enough you’ll find lists of world leaders people would rather not introduce to their granny, never mind to an alien. The lists are usually described as ‘the 10 or 20 worst world leaders’ and include despots like North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir.

Alas Malcolm Turnbull, PM of Australia; the only list I found him on was the ‘hottest heads of state’ leader ladder, languishing in 12th place behind total spunks like Canada’s Justin Trudeau, New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, France’s Emmanuel Macron or Haiti’s Jovenal Moise.

One ought not to touch on politics when striking up conversations at Christmas parties. At one such event, I ventured that the Australian Federal Government was having an ‘Annus Horribilis’ and seemed incapable of making firm and sensible decisions.

I had voiced what I thought was a commonly-held theory, but soon found out what I should have known; on average, at least one-third of people voted for that motley group of indecisive dual citizens who went to work on just 64 days in 2017.

“So what do you think about Turnbull’s piss-weak energy policy?” I began at another Xmas do, when I probably should have said, “Strange weather for this time of year, don’t you think?”

That person moved away, but left me a clean run at the cheese platter.

From my point of view, the LNP in Canberra blundered from one disaster to another in 2017, momentarily making itself look good by introducing marriage equality laws, which in truth should have been enshrined in 1980-something. The poll was estimated to cost the taxpayer $122 million and then we endured weeks of angst while the same-sex marriage law was debated, after 61.6% of the 79.5% of people who voted had told them that’s what they wanted in the first place.

The great shame, or should I say sham, is that the Turnbull government, deliberately or not, distracted the people from more serious issues (climate change, the Adani coal mine, Manus Island), by turning the same-sex marriage debate into an expensive, non-binding referendum-style exercise. They could have used one of those 64 sitting days to have a free vote. We’d have achieved the same result and deployed the $122 million to more laudable outcomes (like finding emergency accommodation for the 6,000 or so Australians who sleep rough each night).

We’ve seen from recent State elections and Federal by-elections that the people are not happy with the mainstream parties. The drift towards the Greens on one side and One Nation on the other mimics the rise of populism the world over.

Political commentator Michelle Grattan, speaking at the launch of The Conversation Yearbook in Brisbane, said so many people in Australia are disgusted with politics they are ‘‘tuning out”

“People think (politicians) are behaving badly, because they are behaving badly. They (politicians) alienate the public – they are aware of it, but it’s beyond them to regain the people’s trust.”

Grattan said focus groups in north Queensland, ahead of the State elections, saw through Malcolm Turnbull’s ploy to cancel a week’s parliamentary sittings. This was ostensibly to allow the House and the Senate to resolve the citizenship issue and to work through the same sex marriage debate.

But here’s the thing: the NQ focus groups didn’t much like Malcolm Turnbull, but neither did they warm to Bill Shorten as an alternative leader.

The Queensland election continued a national, if not international trend: voters are fed up with mainstream parties and are casting their votes elsewhere.

In Queensland, 30.9% of first preference votes went to minority parties, while the informal vote was higher than average, at 4.58%. In the Bennelong Federal by-election, 10 minor parties grabbed 19.15% of the first preference primary vote, although that did not stop the LNP’s John Alexander (45.05%) taking the seat.

So what else happened in 2017?

While it wasn’t a party political issue, the rise of the social media hashtag #MeToo movement had its high point when Time Magazine chose #MeToo as its influential “Person of the Year”.

If you had been living under a rock, #MeToo is a movement where women who have been harassed, assaulted, bullied and otherwise vilified (primarily by men), came out and stood with their sisters.

The movement started with casting-couch revelations about Hollywood movie producer Harvey Weinstein and flushed out similarly bad behaviour all over the world. The Australia media chimed in, outing former TV gardening host Don Burke for a series of alleged indiscretions. Sydney’s Telegraph made an allegation about Australian actor Geoffrey Rush, who responded with a writ for defamation.

On a more positive note, 2017 turned up an unlikely winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. The prize went to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). The organization received the award for drawing attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons.

There were other examples of positive news in 2017, amid the political scandals, terrorist attacks, humanitarian crises and natural disasters.

A December 19 report by Katrina Sichlau, News Corp Australia Network, found that renewable energy employed 10 million people worldwide.

(Aside – that makes the Queensland Premier’s contested claim that the proposed Adani coal mine would employ 10,000 people look rather sad).

The same article said France and Britain had launched a Clean Air Plan which will make sense to people who have visited either country this year or last. In a year when Queensland’s land-clearing reached Brazil-like proportions, Pakistan planted one billion trees.

If I may add to this optimistic list, New Zealand elected a woman in her 30s as Prime Minister (Jacinda Ardern), largely at the whim of (Queen)-maker Winston Peters, a veteran politician who saw sense in forming an alliance with the savvy young Labour leader.

Probably the less we say about Donald Trump the better, as he seems to thrive on publicity, be it good or bad. Trump continues to use Twitter like a flame-thrower, this year setting diplomatic fires in North Korea, Israel, and Germany and within the US itself.

Trump reportedly plans to go ahead with a visit to the UK in 2018, despite the recent twitter row with UK PM Theresa May. If you’ll recall, Trump retweeted videos posted by radical right group Britain First, inaccurately blaming Muslims in the UK for terrorist attacks.

There has been much misreporting about Trump’s ‘working’ visit to the UK. The White House at one point thanked the Queen for her “gracious invitation” to meet with President Trump at Buckingham Palace. The Guardian Weekly reported on December 15 that a formal state visit was not envisaged. “The Queen is likely to be preoccupied with preparations for a Commonwealth summit.”

As myth-buster Snopes points out, there is a long standing tradition that the Queen does not intervene in political disputes.

We wish you all an ‘annus mirabilis’ in 2018.


New Zealand politics stirs ghost of Norman Kirk

Norman Kirk meets Gough Whitlam in 1973. Photo: Archives NZ

I became aware of New Zealand politics, circa 1960 when a tall Kiwi farmer with coiffed hair and a plummy accent won an election in his own right. After serving as interim PM in 1957, Keith Jacka Holyoake went on to become Sir Keith and later the country’s Governor-General, the only person ever to hold both offices.

The National Party (Conservative) leader ruled New Zealand politics from 1960 to 1972, ousted by a Whitlam-esque Labour figure, Norman Kirk (left). After a promising start, Kirk battled ill health through 1974 and died in office, aged just 51.

Kirk, a working class man who built his own h0me at Kaiapoi, could have been anything. He once said, “People don’t want much, just someone to love, somewhere to live, somewhere to work and something to hope for.”

As Labour scholar Vittoria Trevitt recounts for the Chifley Research Centre, Kirk immediately set about turning New Zealand politics on its head. Social security benefits were increased and new social programmes introduced. Like Whitlam, Kirk ushered in a single parent’s pension. He encouraged Kiwis to build new homes, formed appeal boards so tenants could oppose rent increases and introduced ‘second chance’ re-finance loans for divorcees and others.

Workers benefited from a ‘no fault’ national accident compensation scheme. The Kirk government also increased the minimum wage, improved leave entitlements and fast-tracked equal pay legislation.

As an aspiring scribe in the early 1970s, I became a Kirk fan when he established a fund for writers. And idealists initially embraced the “Ohu Scheme”, where marginal land in remote rural areas was granted to people who wished to establish alternative settlements or intentional communities.

By Trevitt’s account and other sources, it was Norman Kirk who scrapped compulsory military service; Kirk who on day one called NZ troops back from Vietnam; Kirk who ensured that people who had served in the military would have entitlements and employment opportunities. He refused to host a Springbok tour in 1973 because of South Africa’s apartheid policies and confronted France over nuclear testing in the Pacific. And he turned Waitangi Day into a public holiday. Not bad for just 21 months in office.

Kirk’s successors, Hugh Watt and Bill Rowling, lasted until late 1975 when they were rolled by Rob Muldoon’s National Party. In turn, Muldoon was ousted nine years later by David Lange, whose term as Labour Prime Minister is possibly best remembered by his refusal to allow US nuclear-powered or nuclear-armed ships into New Zealand waters.

(Vin Garbutt sings Lynn Clark’s anti-nuclear song Send the Boats Away (song starts at 0.58)

As head of New Zealand politics, Lange held office for two terms and Labour reigned until 1990. After Jim Bolger’s stint as National PM (1990-1997), the National’s Jenny Shipley had a two-year spell before being evicted by Labour’s Helen Clark, who held a coalition together for three terms before resigning from politics, seemingly disillusioned.

Since 2008, the National Party’s John Key has held sway, until his surprise exit from New Zealand politics last year in favour of caretaker PM Bill English.

So to the Kiwi Labour Party (they spell it with a ‘u’). Exiled since 2008, they have been buoyed by polls, a young, positive leader in Jacinda Ardern and a Whitlam-esque slogan: “let’s do this.” (kia mahi a tenei). Ardern stands a better than 50/50 chance of becoming New Zealand’s third female prime minister and the eighth Labour leader since Joseph Ward in 1906. If so, Australia’s government ought to be worried.

She may have to form government with the Greens and the Maori party, but the polls are saying it could happen. Roy Morgan election poll projections show Labour with 49 seats, Green with 11 seats and Maori Party two seats (62 seats).  The poll predicts National will win 50 seats, NZ First seven seats and Act NZ one seat (58 seats).

I had lost touch with what is now known as the Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand, after a flirtation in the early 70s with the vanguard movement, the Values Party. As has happened here, many staunch Labour voters in NZ have drifted to the Greens. As a former Labour diehard source puts it: “Labour has sold us out before and they’ll do it again. They can only be a real government of progress with the guidance and support of a Green coalition partner.” 

Lobbying Kiwis living abroad

This week we got an email from James Shaw, co-leader of the Green Party of Aotearoa.

“Kia Ora,” he began, meaning G’day or What’s up Bro?

The Green Party needs every vote we can get to ensure the outcome is the most environmentally-friendly and progressive result possible.”

Don’t sit this one out,” said James (Bob resisting the urge to add “to Red Molly”- this one is for RT fans- ed.).

Party Vote Green from anywhere in the world to make sure New Zealand remains a great place to call home.”

The Greens have a reformist agenda which includes a Zero Carbon Act, a Climate Fund and a 1.2 billion tree planting programme. The party opposes new coal mines, fracking, and deep-sea oil and gas drilling.

My sources in NZ and the UK reckon the campaign to recruit expat Kiwis (assisted here by the Australian Greens), is a smart move. “People living in London and elsewhere like the idea of ‘the clean green NZ’. We also have a lot of youth abroad and they tend to vote progressive,” one Green supporter said.

Last I heard there were 650,000 New Zealand citizens living in Australia. There’s no shortage of election issues in New Zealand politics: housing shortages and property prices, health needs/shortages, offshore drilling, water purity and river pollution are just a few. Swinging voters, the so-called “Middle NZ” – people who typically own more than one property – might be swayed to the conservatives by speculation of a Labour/Greens capital gains tax (NZ doesn’t currently have one).

In the Red corner, Labour’s effervescent leader Jacinda Ardern, 37, is gaining an international profile.

As this BBC article “Can ‘stardust’ beat experience?” reveals, Ardern’s elevation to the top job in Labour politics is no accident. A left-wing activist in her teens, she worked in former PM Helen Clark’s office and in the UK as a policy advisor to Tony Blair. She’s been a politician since 2008.

In the Blue corner, incumbent Prime Minister and leader of the National Party Bill English has been a politician since 1990 and Finance Minister twice. He was deputy PM under John Key from 2008 to 2016. In December 2016, When Key suddenly resigned as prime minister, English won the leadership unopposed (with Key’s endorsement).

A new National Party promotional video seeks to counter Ardern’s appeal to women by portraying English, a father of six, as a family man. Bill’s wife Mary recalls the era of cloth nappies when her husband was a stay-at-home dad.

“Bill ran the nappy bucket. That was his job.”

The video includes positive interviews with Education Minister Nikki Kaye and Deputy Prime Minister Paula Bennett. Former PM John Key praises English for keeping a cool head during the global financial crisis and shrewdly notes Bill’s love of rugby.

Now that ought to do the truck.