Censorship, guns and the right to arm bears

 

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This image is classified (S) for satire under FOMM’s censorship guidelines

I was idly wondering if I should have a go at George Christensen for pulling that silly, anti-greenies gun stunt at the firing range but self censorship kicked in. What if he knows where I live? I blanched. The process known in journalism school as ‘self censorship by osmosis’ still kicks in, even 18 years down the track.

You may have assumed I was about to jump into the very deep pool of acrimonious discourse about mass shootings, guns and gun control. Actually, no, there are enough rabid views out there from one side and the other. Perhaps you will have seen Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young’s repost of the kind of vile trolling one can attract by advocating for the environment (if not, don’t bother looking it up – Ed.)

Instead, I thought we should look at a worrisome instance of censorship; where a respected economic analyst/journalist had an article taken down by the national broadcaster, the ABC. Emma Alberice’s reasoned piece about corporate tax cuts was removed by ABC management, reportedly after complaints from on high about its alleged lack of impartiality. Alberice’s article argues there is no case for a corporate tax cut when one in five of Australia’s top companies don’t pay any tax.

After public criticism, the ABC deflected cries of ‘censorship’ saying removing the analysis and an accompanying news story were ‘entirely due to concerns about Ms Alberici’s compliance with ABC editorial policies that differentiate analysis from opinion’.

The analysis has since been scrutinised by experts and given the seal of approval. It has even been re-posted at a public affairs website owned by the eminent Australian, John Menadue, AO. You may recall Menadue. He started his working life as private secretary to Gough Whitlam (1960-67), before forging a career in the private sector then returning to public service in the mid-1970s. He has since led a distinguished career in both public and private life, most notably as an Australian diplomat.

Mr Denmore, one of Australia’s more incisive commentators on media and economics, wrote this in Alberici’s defence:

Mr Denmore (the pseuydonym of a former finance journalist), sees this issue as plain old-fashioned censorship.

He concludes that Alberice was merely offering insights, which have got the nod from some serious-headed economists, as ‘uncomfortable truths’, which those in high government office and boardrooms found too confronting.

Now, a week later, the ABC has reinstated* Emma Alberici’s analysis, albeit with some passages removed. As former ABC journalist Quentin Dempster reported in The New Daily, the author and her lawyers negotiated an agreed form of words for the reposted analysis.

The removal of Alberici’s original analysis coincided with a planned US visit by a high-level delegation of Australian business and government leaders.  The latest advocate of global  of ‘trickle-down economics’,+ President Donald Trump, will meet with PM Malcolm Turnbull today. No doubt Mal will be taking notes on the US president’s ‘open for business’ approach of slashing corporate tax rates from 35% to 21%. Australia’s more modest proposal, which is currently blocked in the Senate, is to reduce the corporate tax rate from 30% to 25%, over a decade.

+A term attributed to American comedian Will Rogers, who used the term derisively, as did later opponents of President Reagan’s ‘Reaganomics’.

The nation’s top business leaders, under the umbrella of the Business Council of Australia, will also meet with US governors and top-level US company executives. Australian State Premiers, including Queensland’s Annastasia Palaszczuk, will also attend.

Business Council head Jennifer Westacott told the Sydney Morning Herald she feels that Australian business is “in the weeds of politics” and

“Meanwhile in the US they’re getting on with it.”

Westacott and Council members support the Australian corporate tax cut proposal as the only policy that can deliver jobs and growth.

Opposition leader Bill Shorten is taking the hard line – a corporate tax cut cannot help ordinary people, at a time when companies are using tax havens and keeping wages low. Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen admits there is a case for company tax cuts, but said the LNP’s plan is unaffordable when the budget is in deficit.

The attempt to gag debate on this subject is, however, more worrying than the toadying going on in Washington. Australia ranks 19th in an international survey of countries judged on press freedoms. Reporters without Borders (RSF) maintains the list of 180 countries, many of whom oppress the media in far more serious ways than plain old censorship.

Australian media freedoms pursued by stealth

At first glance, 19th from 180 sounds good, but Australia has some issues, not the least of which is concentration of media ownership. The risk of self censorship is high, given the lack of job opportunities elsewhere. The 2017 survey notes that new laws in 2015 provide for prison sentences for whistleblowers who disclose information about defence matters, conditions in refugee centres or operations by the Australian Security Intelligence Organization.

I sometimes fret about a FOMM I wrote before these laws were introduced – an eyewitness account of US Marine movements after a chance encounter at a Northern Territory roadhouse.

“Aw shucks, we all just stopped to use the latrine, Ma’am.”

There’s more: a new telecommunications law has opened the door for surveillance of the metadata of journalists’ communications. Federal police raids on Labor Party parliamentarians in 2016 violated the confidentiality of sources. The Reporters without Borders report says the latter showed that authorities were “more concerned about silencing the messengers than addressing the issues of concern to the public that had been raised by their revelations”.

Meanwhile, a new draft national security bill seeks to restrict foreign interference in politics and national security. It contains secrecy and espionage provisions that could result in journalists being sent to prison for five years just for being in possession of sensitive information.

Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk, called the draft bill “oppressive and ill-conceived”.

“If this bill were passed, journalists receiving sensitive information they had not sought would automatically be in violation of the law. If this law had existed in the United States in 1974, the Watergate scandal would never have come to light.”

The free-wheeling nature of social media ensures that dissenting discourse does not stay banned for very long, though often exposed to a much smaller audience.

You may censor me, but never my T-shirts

I suppose now you want me to explain the relevance of the Right to Arm Bears T-shirt, eh? This now threadbare item was bought from a tourist shop on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls in 2010. I have been trying to find and purchase a replacement online. The manufacturer (Gildan) has similar T-shirts but none as fetching as the grumpy-looking bears wearing hunting jackets.

Wearing a shirt that makes a political point, however ironically, is an individual’s right in a free country to express an opinion. In my case it succinctly states my position on American gun laws, just as another T-shirt bought from a stall at Woodford, depicting a full-masted, 17th century sailboat (”Boat People”) says a lot about my attitude to refugees. Perhaps I should replace it with a Save the ABC shirt. Seems like the ABC needs all the friends it can find.

*Read Emma Alberici’s revised analysis here:

More on press freedom.

Keeping Cabinet secrets safe

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Keeping Cabinet secrets, image by Ricky Lynch

Zounds, it’s only the ninth day of February and some records have been set, including the biggest ever accidental leaking of Cabinet secrets. In un-related news, the weather bureau said last Saturday (the 3rd) was the coldest February day in 100 years. We didn’t have a fire on because we had no dry wood, but some Hinterland folks were better organised. BOM said it was 18 degrees but with the rain, fog and all-day and all night drizzle, it felt like 16.

Our New Zealand, Canadian and UK friends and relatives would no doubt scoff at 16-18 degrees being described as chilly. But this is the sub tropics after all, and a week earlier we were enduring temperatures in the mid-30s.

Although it was comparatively balmy in Canberra last weekend (25/10, 27/14), the atmosphere was decidedly chillier. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull turned up for the ABC’s Insiders programme on Sunday vowing that “heads would roll” over the accidental disposal of two filing cabinets full of Cabinet secrets.

The cabinets went to a Canberra second hand office furniture store and were purchased by a citizen who later drilled them open. The (Parliamentary) Cabinet papers dating back 10 years, many marked Top Secret or AUSTEO (Australian Eyes Only), were handed to the ABC. The national broadcaster published nine stories based on the Cabinet secrets over the following days before explaining how they came into the broadcaster’s possession. The ABC deemed some material too sensitive for publication because of national security issues.

In the meantime, Australia’s spy agency ASIO visited ABC headquarters in Sydney and Brisbane and negotiated secure storage for the documents and eventually reclaimed the Cabinet secrets.

Patrick Weller, Griffith University’s Adjunct Professor at the Centre for Governance and Public Policy, judged that the use of the papers by the ABC seemed random. “The ABC was probably aware they had limited time to play the story before it became public and everyone else jumped aboard,” he wrote in The Conversation.

“The story was more about the filing cabinets than the cabinet papers, about the carelessness rather than the content,” Prof. Weller said.

Prof. Weller argued that the leaking of (historical) Cabinet papers is not such a disaster for governments in that they are often time specific, advising about matters long forgotten and maybe even now seen as minor incidents.

As the rules go, historical Cabinet papers are made available after 30 years; once a year in January we get to see another batch. They make for interesting reading if you are a historian or a political academic, but rarely anything more than that. Prof Weller says most Cabinet papers could be released within five years. Only a few would matter.

International eyes on sloppy Aussies

Nevertheless, the story caught the attention of the world’s media and Australia’s international allies – the US, Canada, the UK and New Zealand. The Washington Post commissioned a piece from Australian writer Richard Glover, who pithily summarised the Cabinet secrets affair as “Deep Drawers”.

As Glover observed, the key problem with the sale of unchecked government furniture is that anyone could have bought them, then handed their contents to a foreign agent or government.

He quoted Andrew Wilkie, a former intelligence analyst now sitting MP: “It sends a signal to our intelligence partners and allies that Australia might not be trustworthy when it comes to sharing information and intelligence with us.”

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said on Sunday the “shocking failure” would be fully investigated and the people responsible held accountable.

The idea that public servants, entrusted with highly confidential documents, would put them in a safe, lock the safe, lose the keys, and then sell the safe without checking what was in it – it beggars belief,” he told Insiders

It’s not just governments. Forbes magazine guest writer Mark Emery, director of a document management company, cited examples of big organisations mishandling confidential data. They included paper documents from four hospitals in Massachusetts found un-shredded in a public dumping facility. Another hospital in the same state admitted that personal records of 800,000 people were “missing”.

In Dallas, Texas, prisoners on parole were allowed to work off community service hours by sorting and shredding confidential documents, such as birth certificates and medical records. The practice was scrapped in 2012.

Richard Glover mentions similar circumstances in the 1990s when diplomatic bags were sent to be laundered at Wandsworth prison in the UK. In 1991, Canada’s diplomatic bags (full of top-secret NATO documents)  were mistakenly sent there too, and went missing soon after.

Mistakes happen, in business, in government and in our private lives. Who has not sent a sensitive email intended for one person to many people? The digital data system is just as prone to this kind of mishap as the traditional paper file system.

When computers first started becoming dominant in business (in the 1990s), we were sold the myth of the “paperless office”. Twenty years later, even a micro-business like mine goes through a couple of reams of paper per month. Most people I know who run any kind of consulting business buy a shredder and keep it working (don’t forget to take staples out first!)

Last year in Sydney and Melbourne there were reports of medical files and legal papers found dumped in unlocked kerbside recycling bins. When stories like this make it into the media, they should at least make individuals aware of the need for safeguarding sensitive information.

In the 1980s, I’d been court reporting in a country city for several years. I always archived my jumbo-size reporters’ notebooks – filled on both sides with untidy scrawl – a mix of shorthand and my unique form of notetaking. The second time we moved house, I looked at the four archive boxes full of musty notebooks and decided I had to get rid of them.

I found a waste recycling firm which offered “secure disposal”. They dropped off a big wheelie bin at my place, the lid secured with chains and a padlock. Once I’d filled it up, I called the firm and they picked up the bin. The firm assured me the notebooks would be “burned or pulped”. This exercise cost $75, but what a salve for my conscience. The majority of matters heard in court never make it into the news or are briefly summarised. More importantly, magistrates and judges may decide to supress reporting. There was an example of a district court trial where I took copious notes only to find out that the defendants’ and plaintiffs’ names could not be published. Later a blanket ban was issued and we couldn’t print anything. Notwithstanding, a good court reporter will write everything down – better to have too much than not enough.

So that’s why I was feeling suitably smug, all these years later, when the strange case of “Deep Drawers” hit the news. It’s hard enough to keep secrets secret in the era of digital ‘cloud’ storage, super hackers and whistle-blowers. But Richard Glover’s oblique reference to “Deep Throat” (nickname of the Watergate source), nevertheless reminds us that if we want to discard sensitive paper files, dispose of them as I did.

If that was all a little heavy for an early autumn Friday, here’s a few songs about February to help you cope with the cold (or the heat).

The list did not include February, a poignant tune by Dar Williams, but here it is anyway.

 

Take me to your leader – the quest continues

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(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.

 

Plebiscites for the huddled masses

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Rainbow curtains by Maxbphotography https://flic.kr/p/RJ6yMy

Did you know that the good citizens of Puerto Rico voted in a plebiscite whether to allow the island territory to become the 51st state of the USA? Despite a low voter turnout (23%), the $15 million non-binding plebiscite achieved a 97% yes vote for statehood. But now the fate of PR lies in the hands of the US government, which has no legal obligation to follow through.

The issue for Puerto Rico’s 3.42 million citizens is the country’s insupportable debt, worsening poverty and rapidly declining population. The Pew Research Centre says the childhood poverty level among Hispanics of Puerto Rican origin is 58%, the figure based on a median household income of $18, 626. Puerto Ricans living on the US mainland, meanwhile, have a household income of $33,000 (if born on the island) or $44,000 if born in the US. The childhood poverty level is 44% and 30% respectively. Little wonder almost half a million Puerto Ricans moved to the US between 2005 and 2015.

As you may have read (unless living under the proverbial rock), the Australian Government wants to hold a national plebiscite on same-sex marriage. Despite the Senate blocking draft legislation this week, the government aims to proceed with a $122 million postal ballot. This is so we can find out for sure if what the polls have been saying since 2011 are right – that more than 50% of the people want marriage equality.

But as per the outcome in Puerto Rico, there’s no guarantee a government will act on the result of a plebiscite, which, unlike a referendum, is not binding.

Australia has only ever held three plebiscites: two on conscription in 1916 and 1917 (the No vote prevailed), and a third in 1977 which offered a selection of mediocre tunes from which to select a national song. You will note here the bastardry of the choices, with Advance Australia Fair (which attracted 43.2% of the votes) distancing Waltzing Matilda (28.3%) and God Save the Queen (18.7%), which the Fraser government decided to keep as the official national anthem). Another 9.8% voted for Song of Australia (Caroline Carleton/Carl Linger). Close to 653,000 people voted for this song, but if you can hum me a few bars I’ll walk backwards to Conondale.

National songs aside (Bob Hawke reinstated Advance Australia Fair as the National Anthem in 1984), plebiscites are only ever held (in Australia) to decide issues which do not require a change to the constitution. Elsewhere in the world, as noted by election analyst Antony Green, the terms plebiscite and referenda are interchangeable. Some countries (New Zealand, even) hold citizen-initiated plebiscites to decide a range of issues, like whether to smack a child or not.

The prominent constitutional lawyer George Williams, explaining why plebiscites are so rare in Australia said: “They go against the grain of a system in which we elect parliamentarians to make decisions on our behalf”.

Professor Williams said referendums necessarily polarise debate, as happened in Ireland when a yes/no proposition was put to the community.

As a result, even if the referendum did succeed, it may leave bitterness and division in its wake,” he wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald.

National University of Ireland lecturer Brian Tobin said the Irish experience showed that putting a human rights issue to a national vote is a crude means of legalising same-sex marriage. “It forces a historically oppressed minority to literally have to plead with the majority for access to marriage in the months prior to the vote. It also provides a platform for those opposed to misinform the public and air anti-gay views.”

Labor Senator Penny Wong spoke against the plebiscite proposal in Parliament this week, saying it will expose same-sex couples and their children to hatred. It’s a fair argument, given that Australia seems well behind the times when it comes to giving minorities a fair go.

Wake up, Australia!

So far, 23 countries have legalised same-sex marriage since the Netherlands took the first step in 2001. Only Ireland has put the question to a popular vote. As SBS News reporter Ben Winsor noted in June this year, there are now 670 million people living in countries where same-sex marriage is a legal right.

In 2015, the Supreme Court of the United States declared that the constitution protected the rights of citizens to marry, regardless of gender. It was the same year that Ireland voted 62% in support of same-sex marriage.

Nevertheless, Northern Ireland has not passed same-sex marriage legislation. The Church of England remains opposed to it, despite ongoing internal debate, and gay marriage has become a legal minefield in the aforementioned Puerto Rico.

The Australian government could resolve the issue simply and cheaply by holding a free ballot for members of parliament. This would cost the taxpayer precisely nothing and would avoid months of divisive debate.

Facebook’s Rainbow Warriors

Social media was aflame on Wednesday night as people ridiculed the costly notion of a (voluntary) plebiscite. Many people offered findings on what else $122 million could buy (chicken nuggets for all, said one post).

A cursory search by yours truly turned up another fascinating nugget: The cost of the same-sex marriage postal ballot is only $6 million more than the 2017-2018 Budget approved last month by Noosa Shire Council. The Shire covers 868.7 square kilometres and has a population of more than 52,000 residents.

But getting back to Puerto Rico, an unincorporated territory of the United States located in the northeast Caribbean Sea. Then White House press secretary Sean Spicer said of the June 11 vote, “now that the people have spoken on Puerto Rico, this is something that Congress has to address.” But Spicer is gone and Congress has an easy ‘out’ pointing to the low (23%) voter turnout. The key reason Puerto Rico wants Statehood is to be protected by US bankruptcy laws.

As Carlos Ivan Gorrin Peralta, a professor at the InterAmerican University of Puerto Rico told The Atlantic magazine, “To make a long story short, the prospects (of nationhood) are between zero and negative-10 percent.”

I’m not suggesting that Australians will boycott the (voluntary) postal ballot to that degree. But the Puerto Rican plebiscite shows what can happen when governments try to railroad people into something they do not want.

In 2011, then Opposition Leader Tony Abbott proposed a plebiscite to test Australians’ support for a carbon tax. This was variously described in the media as “junk politics” and “an expensive, bad idea”.

Moreover, Abbott said that if the plebiscite showed support for a carbon tax he would ignore it anyway.

If there’s a clear sign Aussies are fed up with the dicking about* over the same-sex marriage debate, it was reflected in the much-retweeted front page of the NT News.

The Murdoch-owned Northern Territory tabloid set aside its usual croc-shock/blood in the water approach. Instead its masthead was decked out in rainbow colours.

Under an image of two hands intertwined the NT News declared: “The legalisation of same sex-marriage is inevitable. It’s time to end this farce”.

Cool. Now can we have our chicken nuggets?

*dicking about’ – to do absolutely nothing constructive and be completely useless to the point where it can aggravate others. (Urban Dictionary).