Australian Republic & indigenous Sovereignty

Two things worried me while reading Mark McKenna’s powerful Moment of Truth. First is that he, along with others writing in The Monthly & The Guardian, brings together the issues of an Australian republic and of a settlement with Aboriginal Australia, arguing that Australia will soon have the opportunity to become a republic and also “to achieve a meaningful constitutional settlement with Indigenous Australians. If these changes are to have any realistic prospect of success, we need to articulate a more cohesive and unified vision, one that understands the crucial importance of truth-telling” In this process, “acknowledging the past … will not weigh us down. It will liberate us.” (pp.16-17).

Second is the Uluru Statement’s view of Aboriginal sovereignty– quoted with obvious approval at the beginning of McKenna’s essay – as “a spiritual notion: the ancestral tie between the land … and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who were born therefrom”. Here, sovereignty is not used in the conventional sense that most of the world has inherited from the territorial settlements of sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe: sovereignty as tied to a specific territory, with the sovereign – a state or Royal of some kind – holding supreme power within its own territory and acting independently outside. (This formulation suggests that sovereignty in the conventional sense must be exclusive but the reality is not so tidy.) To note that the Uluru view of sovereignty is unconventional is to say no more than that there are differences to be explored and, hopefully, understood & respected. Sovereignty in the conventional Western sense involves a legal & military/political link to the land – which both Britain & Argentina appealed to in the 1982 war – but not a spiritual tie in the sense stressed by the Uluru statement. Nor is this spiritual tie just an Australian version of nineteenth century European – and recent American – racist appeals to blut und boden (blood & soil)

Well before I finished McKenna’s Essay, I had put these two worries behind me. To explain the worries and why they no longer bother me in the same way, I should begin by confessing that I write as a recovering academic, that is, as suffering an unhealthy – and certainly unAustralian – addiction to identifying the steps in an argument and establishing how well they work. Since crucial steps are frequently slipped over in silence or buried in a maze of chatter that, however engaging it might be in other respects, is hardly consequential to the issue at hand, this can be both challenging & time-consuming.

When I finally settled in Australia in 1987, I was already a British anti-monarchist. I hardly needed persuading to support Australian republicanism but it took me a while to appreciate the importance of a Settlement with Aboriginal Australia and even longer to grasp why anyone would put these two issues together.

My main problem with Australian republicanism was that too many of its supporters favoured a minimalist republic, one that would change as little as possible outside the formal break with Britain – trying to sell the republican idea as if the break with British Royals would leave Australia much as it had been before. Writing in The Monthly (‘The republic is an Aboriginal issue’, April 2018), Megan Davis asks “whether the Australia on the other side of a successful referendum for a republic [would be] the same as the Australia on this side. Lipstick on a pig …. If Uluru had zero impact on Australian republicans… [H]ow can [indigenous Australians] rely on the reassurance of the political elite who say, “Let’s get a republic up and we will deal with your issues later.” It ain’t gonna happen.” Of course it ain’t.

I have never been impressed by the argument that Australia needs an Australian Head of State instead of the British Monarchs we seem to be stuck with. The problem with having British Monarchs as Head of State seems to me less that they are British than that they are Monarchs. We could dissolve the British connection simply by adopting, say, a junior member of theThai or Japanese Royal Families, assuming they would have us, and avoid dependence on foreigners altogether by adopting a Packer, Rinehart, Downer, Turnbull or even a repatriated Murdoch dynasty – but who would regard any of these as improving on the Windsor/Saxe-Coburg-Gotha model? Monarchs on the British mould are no mere symbols, as Australians realised in 1975. They are capstones holding up ugly & divisive hierarchies – various kinds of honour & prestige, landed property and other kinds of wealth, etc. The UK has more complex & elaborate hierarchies than Australians have yet had sufficient time or imagination to establish.

Well before the end of McKenna’s Essay, I was persuaded of the need for a Settlement with Aboriginal Australia and I also found myself agreeing that the two issues – Republic and Settlement – belong together. Yet the argument for this last point is not easy to identify and this was one of the things that made me uncomfortable. How could people I respected be persuaded of something in the absence of formally compelling argument?

One way to approach this question would be through the archaic notion of a self-evident truth which appears in the final draft of the American Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Self-evident here means something like ‘so clear or obvious that no proof or explanation is required’ This works for me. Before I even finished McKenna’s Essay, I needed no further proof or explanation.

Yet, there were clearly other things going on among the Americans. If a truth is self-evident the opening ‘We hold’ adds nothing. The sentence might well start “These truths are self-evident” or even “It is self-evident that all men…” Alternatively, turning the issue around, we might ask whether the opening ‘we hold’ is actually doing any real work. I suspect that it is saying something about who belongs in the Declaration’s collective “We”, meaning we who share a common set of beliefs (an important part of what social scientists would now call culture.) So, it means roughly “We, people like us, believe… Others (who are not like us, Native Americans, say, or Black Slaves) believe differently.”

If this is a useful way to look at the case for placing Republic and Settlement together, then we – who need no persuasion – have to admit that there are Australians, including many Coalition parliamentarians, who would not be affected by reading Moment of Truth, The Uluru Statement or Megan Davis’ Monthly article quoted above. Acknowledging the past is one thing; facing up to its contemporary ramifications is something else. Perhaps teaching more honest Australian history, which many of our historians are now busy writing, would do the trick. But, perhaps not. Perhaps this is just another illusion of the intellectuals, the belief that people will admit the truth when we present it to them. Perhaps, Howard knew what he was doing when he launched his History Wars.

Turning now to the issue of sovereignty, if the sovereign is seen as holding supreme power within its own territory and acting independently outside then sovereignty will be regarded as exclusive in the sense sovereignties cannot overlap in a territory. Give or take uncomfortable complications, this implication of the conventional Western view of sovereignty is rarely questioned. Partly for this reason, many commentators are uncomfortable with the proposal that Jerusalem should be the capital of both an Israeli and a Palestinian State – but their discomfort is not a good reason for abandoning an otherwise promising proposal.

Among these complications, two are particularly worth noting here: first, nineteenth-century European powers & the USA imposed concessions on imperial China and the Ottoman Empire which ensured that American, British, French or Dutch commercial law operated in limited regions in or near Shanghai & Istanbul; second, the diplomatic convention that selectively insulates many Embassy staff & their buildings & grounds from the laws of the host country, in part by treating the latter as belonging to the territory of another independent state. This diplomatic pretence enables Julian Assange, for example, to safely ignore many British laws as long as he stays within the Ecuadorian Embassy. Such complications are worth recognising as precedents showing the possibility of overlapping sovereignties whatever we think of the manner in which it was achieved. I noted earlier that the sovereignty asserted in the Uluru Statement’s sense seems to be radically distinct from the conventional account of sovereignty as a political/territorial notion. The Statement also insists that “[i]t has never been ceded or extinguished, and co-exists with the sovereignty of the Crown.”

So, from the perspective of Aboriginal sovereignty, there is no reason it cannot coexist with a different sovereignty in the conventional sense. The question is whether the conventional understanding of sovereignty could be equally accepting. The examples of diplomatic convention and concessions imposed by Western powers offer precedents of a kind but we should be wary of accepting them. The Aboriginal sovereignty we are invited to recognise today is not like the limited sovereignty we accord to the Chinese or American embassies in Canberra – there is no independent Aboriginal state of which the tent embassy in Canberra could be regarded as an extension – nor is it a concession imposed on the rest of us by Aboriginal Australia.

Another precedent we would do well to avoid is the notion of domestic dependent nation developed in a series of judgments by US Supreme Court Justice Marshall in the early nineteenth century. Marshall’s conceptual innovation proved to be a mixed blessing for native Americans (See Patrick Wolfe’s useful discussion in Traces of History). On the one hand, it gave (some) American tribes legal standing in the USA, allowing them to enter legally-binding agreements and to bring cases to court. On the other hand, it recognised (some) tribes as distinct but not independent nations: they were not sovereign bodies with which US Governments could make truly international treaties, of the kind it made, for example, with Britain, China, France, Germany & Japan; & earlier treaties between USA and native tribes no longer had the legal force of treaties with sovereign independent states. A Treaty between Australia and a domestic dependent indigenous nation would be worth little more than the paper or bark on which it was written.

While it is easy enough to find precedents for the possibility of overlapping sovereignty, the examples noted here all present unequal relationships in which the dominant party concedes, voluntarily or under threat of force, a partial sovereignty to the other. If this is the best the conventional understanding of sovereignty has to offer indigenous Australia, it is unlikely to be acceptable.

Does this mean that a Settlement with indigenousAustralia is too hard to even contemplate, that we need to aim for a different – some would say a lesser – outcome? Not necessarily. What we desperately need is the jurisprudential creativity – of the quality we saw, for example, in the Uluru Statement, for that matter, the High Court’s Mabo judgment – to rework the conventional understanding of sovereignty so that it could recognise indigenous Australia and the Australian state as formally equal parties – much as it enables USA and Mexico to treat together as formal equals. Fortunately, there are outstanding constitutional lawyers in Australia, one of whom appears to have been involved in drafting the Uluru Statement.

We also need a Government willing to turn a sympathetic ear – unlike the wilfully tin ear the Coalition Government turned to the Uluru Statement. The polls suggest we may be lucky enough to get one before too long.

Three short pieces on corruption: 3.

I suggested in earlier pieces on IA, using the example of the British Tories pursuit of a prominent Labour Party figure, T. Dan Smith, that accusations of corruption often further a political agenda; and further that different ideas of democracy and of corruption itself often get in the way of clear analysis.

Where does this leave the case for a Federal version of ICAC? The main point is that we should not expect too much from whatever is finally established. The I (for ‘Independent’, in the english-language title of Hong Kong’s ICAC) aimed to assure the people of Hong Kong that ICAC was not part of HK’s regular civil service and, in particular, that it was independent of HK police. Yet when the NSW Liberals picked up the ICAC title in the late ’80s, the I indicated little but the word ‘independent’ itself, which functions in Australian political debate as an obstacle to critical thinking. What can you say when a Coalition Government appeals to a decision of the independent umpire – in this case The Fair work Commission whose members were appointed by a Labor Government – to support its decision to cut penalty rates?

To be sure, the NSW & SA’s ICACs are not the only models proposed for attacking corruption at a federal level. In practice, calls for a Federal ICAC reflect more the magic of the I-word than any real desire to model the desired Federal arrangement on the specifics of NSW’s, SA’s or HK’s ICACs.

A Senate select committee is looking into the possibility of forming a National Integrity Commission, where the word integrity indicates that the focus would be more on promoting norms of good conduct than simply penalising the bad. The ALP has already proposed such a Commission, drawing on a detailed proposal from the Australia Institute, which is itself based on the work of a National Integrity Committee consisting of former senior judges and corruption fighters. Its design principles

“include the need for the commission to be an independent and well-resourced agency, with a broad jurisdiction and the strong investigative powers of a Royal Commission, including the ability to hold public hearings.”

Here, too, we see the magic word ‘independent’ but there is relatively little detail on how the desired independence and resources required to make it meaningful are to be secured. An NIC Briefing Paper from November 2017 notes that “NSW ICAC has faced funding cuts over consecutive years, resulting in the loss of 17 staff including an entire investigative team. This occurred after ICAC exposed corruption in political donations involving ten members of the Liberal Party. The NSW Public Service Association has said that the funding cuts are an attempt by the NSW Government to diminish scrutiny. Former NSW DPP Nicholas Cowdery AM QC has raised concerns about the resources made available to NSW ICAC and a future federal anti-corruption commission:
NSW ICAC has been faced this year with a funding cut. It is an easy way for government to impair the effectiveness of such a body and steps would need to be taken to ensure that adequate resources continued to be allocated to a national integrity commission.”

Sounds good – but can we seriously expect a Commonwealth Government or Federal Parliament to actually ensure independence and sufficient funding? Starting with independence, the AI proposal envisages that the Integrity Commission will be an independent statutory body (the statutory character ensuring that it cannot easily be shut down by a Government) and that it will “be governed by one Chief Commissioner and two Deputy Commissioners, appointed by the Minister on recommendations from a bipartisan Parliamentary committee”
Here independence seems to be interpreted as meaning little more than non-partisan, suggesting that a Committee to appoint the first Commissioner/ President of the Commission would have members drawn from the Coalition, ALP, Greens and possibly other parties. The alternative to an appointment committee of pollies would be a committee of the great and the good, which is unlikely to include readers of or contributors to IA & only a few from the IPA.

To ensure Commissioners’ independence, an independent process of appointment would have to be complemented by provisions to protect Commissioners from arbitrary dismissal. Accordingly, there are likely to be provisions making it difficult for the Government to dismiss Commissioners, as there normally are for Senior Judges and the President of the Australian Human Rights Commission. The Coalition clearly hated Gillian Triggs while she held this last position, but could find no easy way to get rid of her. Even so, continual harassment by senior political figures would still have taken its toll: security of tenure is essential but it is no defense against bullying.

Once we have sorted the question of independence or given up on it, first question to be addressed is how can the new body’s budget to be secured. Nicolas Cowdery’s point, noted earlier, about the need to secure resources for a Federal ICAC or Integrity Commission, is an important one. Funding cuts, insufficient allowance for inflation & efficiency dividends are easy ways for Governments to limit the effectiveness of independent agencies, and it would be foolish to imagine that future Governments will hesitate to use them.

Three short pieces on corruption: 2

At first sight, it seems pretty obvious that corruption damages democracy. When corrupt politicians & public servants make decisions on the basis, in part, of personal advantage, it disrupts their focus on the public interest. And the case for something like an ICAC at the Commonwealth level seems no less obvious. The story gets complicated and analysis risks becoming dry and academic when we recognise, first, that different ideas of both ‘democracy’ and ‘corruption’ are normally in play and, second that concerns over corruption at this level have covered a vast range of issues, for example, in no particular order:

the ATO’s focus on workers fiddling their tax returns rather that tax evasion by big corporations;
the impact of political donations and the broader influence of vested interests;
massive electricity price hikes following privatisation;
the collapse of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan;
the banks influence over the terms of reference of the banking Royal Commission:
the apparent influence of mining companies over several areas of Government policy;
the Coalition Government twice finding a job in other parliamentarians’ offices for Barnaby Joyce’s girl-friend;
pollies using official travel to go to important sporting events;
pollies looking after their own, eg. Joyce’s own Party finding a salary for him while he was out of parliament following the High Court finding that he was a dual citizen;
pollies getting private benefit out of official business, eg. Bronwyn Bishop’s use of a helicopter on the last leg of a journey to a political engagement in Geelong;
relatively minor (ie. inexpensive) rorting of parliamentary travel and accommodation allowances; regular application of double standards over who counts as a partner and payments to members of parliament compared to welfare recipients, indigenous people & other members of the public.

Overall, as Alan Austin has recently pointed out on IA, there is no shortage of incidents in the history of the current government that might be labelled corrupt. Furthermore, if we regard the fourth estate – the mainstream media – as an integral part of our political system, there is more than enough evidence of corruption within it.

Turning to differing views of ‘corruption’, the core idea is of some kind of decay or infection that undermines a normal or natural condition – think of a plum, nectarine, apple or pear that might go off over time or become infected from the outside by wasps or other insects.

Sometimes the core idea of corruption is invoked without the word itself, as when Shakespeare’s Hamlet declares there’s ‘something rotten in the state of Denmark or Australians refer to someone rorting the system. In this last case, the word rort refers to an area of what might otherwise be called corruption.

When the word ‘corruption’ is used in relation to politics, it means that politics no longer works as the speaker thinks it should, for example, that politicians & public servants seem to be overly concerned with the pursuit of financial or other individual rewards (although the normal processes of careers and promotion within large bureaucracies can also have this effect).

This brings us to differing views of democracy. For most of the history of Western culture, up to at least the time of the French and American revolutions, most people who wrote about democracy thought it was a bad idea – essentially because it empowered the poor and, for the most part, poorly educated majority, who were regarded as being particularly vulnerable to demagogic appeals and likely to be opposed to the interests of the more prosperous and, again for the most part, better educated minority. Even the great eighteenth-century English radical supporter of American independence, Tom Paine, was sceptical about pure democracy, preferring what he called representation ingrafted upon democracy.

This last is pretty much what America and the rest of us ended up with.Representative government can be found in most contemporary societies and we call it democracy, as do Western-dominated international agencies like the World Bank & IMF. In practice, democracy is understood today in two very different ways – as meaning both representative government and government by the people themselves with the Right leaning towards the one usage and the Left towards the other.

Democracy as representative government departs from the original understanding of democracy as government by the people, if only because representative government keeps the people themselves away from the actual work of government. Rather, it is a system of government by a complex network of representatives elected by the people, unelected public servants and other institutions – ABC, ICAC (in NSW & SA), the courts, ASIO, Fair Work Commission, Human Rights Commission, Productivity Commission & sundry Royal Commissions, etc. – that may be nominally independent of Government but are actually run by political appointees.

Active involvement by the people, other than voting, is positively discouraged under representative government, while appeals to the people (by leftist parties in Greece and Spain, by the Trump campaign & Bernie Saunders in the US, Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, the UK’s victorious pro-Brexit campaign, Marine le Pen and other Right-wing leaders in West & Central Europe) are often dismissed as anti-democratic populism. Peter Dutton’s recent proposal that the public should be involved in the appointment of judges and magistrates is a rare exception: it was sometimes ridiculed but largely ignored yet few commentators called it out as populist. Overall, it would not be much of a stretch to say that democracy, in the original understanding of the term, is commonly treated as a corruption of democracy, in the sense of representative government. On the other hand, interference of unelected institutions in the work of Government – eg. The Australian Constitution’s section 44 which states that dual citizens are not eligible to stand for election to the Federal parliament; the UK Supreme Court’s ruling after the majority popular vote in favour of Brexit that the Brexit process could not proceed without parliamentary approval – is often represented as subverting the will of the people, in effect, as corrupting Australian or British democracy

In an earlier piece on IA, I used the example of the British Tories pursuit of a prominent Labour Party figure, T. Dan Smith, to suggest that accusations of corruption often further a political agenda. I might have added that once talk of corruption becomes established in this way, it rapidly becomes a bipartisan affair. Yet these comments only scratch the surface of an extremely murky history of relations between government and corruption: a history, in particular, of persistent attempts to draw lessons for the present from episodes in the history of Imperial Rome; and of British imperial efforts to promote limited forms of self-government in its colonies (including its settler colonies in Australia & North America) as British administrators strove to make colonies pay for their own government and enterprising locals worked out ways of diverting funds for their own purposes. The British called this corruption. As a result, corruption came to be seen as a particular problem in the colonies and as returning to infect Britain itself. Today, following the end of overt imperial domination, corruption is no longer regarded primarily as a problem of imperial rule. Rather, it is now seen as universal but as posing particular problems in developing societies.

It is worth recalling the existence of this murky history when we see something like a Federal ICAC, a title taken from the closing years of British imperial rule in Hong Kong, proposed as a way of dealing with political corruption in Australia. Hong Kong’s ICAC was established in 1974 by the British Governor in response to widespread popular outrage over corruption. British Hong Kong suffered most varieties of corruption with which we are familiar in Australia and one which has rarely been experienced here. What particularly infuriated the people of Hong Kong was the incidence of what we might call street-level corruption – corruption by civil servants interacting with the public. As in the UK, the HK government employees we would call public servants were known as civil servants but, unlike the UK, virtually all Government employees were civil servants. HK street-level civil servants – garbos, school teachers, nurses & police – would demand payment from members of the public simply for doing their jobs, in part because the HK Government kept their salaries low in a misguided effort to control inflation. Not surprisingly, many of their supervisors would demand a cut, along with the supervisors of these supervisors and so on up through the whole chain of command so that the whole system was generally regarded as riddled with corruption. There were even stories of fire-fighters demanding payment from householders & shopkeepers before turning on their hoses.

The original ICAC was the creature of a remote imperial Government that was barely answerable to the governed population, leaving it with an independence from partisan political interference that the NSW & SA ICACs and any proposed Federal equivalent can only dream of.

Three short pieces on corruption: 1. The Pub in the Field

Australia is consistently ranked among the least corrupt countries – 13th place out of 175 in 2016, its lowest ranking for many years and some way behind Singapore (at 7th place) – on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. (Singapore’s ranking will surprise those who have any experience of Singaporean politics.) Yet, within Australia, pressure is building for major reforms: The Greens, Labor and several Senate Crossbenchers favour a Federal version of NSW’s ICAC while Bill Shorten, taking up elements of an Australia Institute proposal, has promised that his Labor Government, which he hopes to form after the next election, will establish a National Integrity Commission. To understand this discrepancy between Australia’s good international ranking and internal perceptions of a serious problem of corruption, we should recognise that corruption is not an easy idea to pin down: TI’s index is based, not on the realities of corruption within different countries but on perceptions, mostly by international businesses, of corruption as an obstacle to doing business while what concerns many Australians is what they see as endemic political corruption; and what is seen as corruption varies over time and from place to place. This is the first of what I hope will be several pieces addressing the complexities of political corruption in Australia.

My first intimation of what would now be called political corruption came when I moved to Liverpool (UK) in the late 1950s and heard the story of The Pub in the Field. The story came in different forms depending on who you spoke to, but the basic elements are as follows. Like other large British cities, Liverpool faced a massive building task in the aftermath of WW2 – dealing partly with bomb damage and partly with slum clearance. The Pub/Field story went that a local Brewer, closely linked to the Liverpool Conservative Party, built a pub at what would have been a prime location in a substantial public housing estate on the outskirtsof the City, the plans for which were never made public. Zoning regulations would have ensured that this pub had no serious competition. Plans change and, for a time, Labour took control of the City Council. (There are no direct parallels between City Councils in Australia and Britain. Liverpool City Council managed local infrastructure, public transport and planning, including zoning regulations which restricted the locations of new businesses, including pubs, for a population of close to a million, much larger than most Australian City Councils. Brisbane City Council is probably the nearest Australian parallel to a British City Council)

The estate was not built as originally planned, except for the road on which the pub stood, which was constructed pretty much on schedule. Meanwhile a perfectly serviceable pub was left looking for business in the middle of a field. I also learned that there were close ties between the Brewer and the local Tories and that whoever became leader of the City Conservatives would normally be appointed to its Board of Directors. The Brewer was not happy with the delay in building the estate but, while it clearly favoured the Conservatives and the small anti-Labour Protestant Party, who always voted with the Tories, it had limited influence on the outcome of local elections. While newspaper columnists and letters to the editor argued that the Brewer had been badly treated, Labour took the view that it served them right.

I don’t recall anyone at the time describing the cosy relationship between the Tories and the Brewer in terms of corruption. It was dreadfully unfair, of course, but most of us on the Left took it for granted that the political odds would always be stacked against us, a perception that has since been powerfully reinforced by experience. I had already learned that many MPs, even in the Labour Party, retired from politics owning two or more homes – one in London, another in their electorate and sometimes a farm in the Home Counties – but nobody referred to this as evidence of corruption

The first memory I have of corruption being raised as an issue in contemporary British politics is of the Tories going after T. Dan Smith in the early 70s. Smith had been born in Wallsend, next to Newcastle-upon-Tyne on the north bank of the river, and grew up to become a major figure in the Labour Party in North-East England. He was both leader of the Newcastle Labour Party and, from 1960 to ’65, Leader of Newcastle City Council. In this last position, he talked of turning Newcastle into ‘the Brasilia of the North’ and became known to his political opponents, inside and outside Labour, as ‘Mouth of the Tyne’. Smith presided over massive redevelopment of the city and was admired and loathed in roughly equal measure for building many blocks of public housing apartments and for demolishing fine historical buildings and destroying long-standing working class communities in the process.

In 1962, he established his own public-relations business, subsequently forming a semi-professional relationship with the architect John Poulson who designed serviceable but architecturally unexciting apartment blocks. Smith sent work worth over a million in fees in Poulson’s direction and Poulson gave him several thousand in return. Smith’s PR firm was caught up in a minor scandal in the London Borough of Wandsworth, which lead to Smith being charged with bribery. On this charge he was acquitted but later, in connection with his Newcastle dealings, Smith was charged with corruption and finally sentenced to six years imprisonment. His Labour supporters argued that Poulson’s payments to Smith were small & inconsequential and that what the Tories really hated was that he got results, that large numbers of new homes were built. His Tory critics cited the example of Smith’s dirty hands to show that Labour, unlike the independently wealthy Tories, could not be trusted in Government. There is more to be said for and against both these views than I have space for here.

Since the Smith affair, I have never been able to take politicians accusations of corruption at face value: there always seems to be an unstated political agenda in play. Thus, when the Dyson Heydon Royal Commission was established in 2014 by the Abbott Government, it seemed clear that it had been designed to damage the Labor Party.

I had settled in Australia some years earlier, after arriving just in time to see John Dawkin’s disastrous neoliberal reform of Australian Higher Education and the Liberal Premier Nick Greiner’s Government establish the New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption in 1988. While the magic word ‘independent’ in its full title was clearly intended to suggest that, although it was funded by a vote of the N SW parliament, ICAC was above politics and in no way dependent on the Government of the day, it was clearly designed by the Liberals to hit the NSW Labor Party while it was down. That Greiner himself was one of ICAC’s first major victims was a kind of poetic justice. For a time, it looked as if the NSW Liberals would be ranked alongside NSW Labor in the Australian political corruption stakes – but neither of them came even close to the record established by Bjelke-Petersen’s National Party in Queensland during the ’70s and ’80s.

Today’s take-away is that in Britain and also, I suspect, in Australia mutually beneficial arrangements between pollies and local businesses were not widely regarded as corrupt but this changed when a prominent Labour politician got in on the act. Of course, the details of the Australian history were different, but in both cases, what was once seen simply as the way of the world is now regarded as corruption. Or, turning this around, what we now see as corrupt was once regarded as normal: who knows how much of what we now take for granted will one day be seen as corrupt.

On “The Australian Belligerence”

The Saturday Paper’s editorial “The Australian Belligerence” (23 December, 2017) describes this belligerence as “a drunk speaking louder and louder to make the same point. Its senses are numbed, its reasoning diminished. It is angry at its impotence.” Anger is the dominant element in this unattractive syndrome (which can also be observed in other settler-colonial societies) but there are several others. The editorial focuses on the angry denial of Australian history, while also pointing to a broader set of problems. Sticking with anger for the moment, alongside the denial of history, we might note a refusal to face up to Australia’s present – the stubborn denial of our disgraceful treatment of the asylum-seekers holed up on Manus Island & Nauru; our persistent failure, ritually lamented every year, to make significant progress on Closing the Gap between indigenous & non-indigenous Australians; our mean-spirited treatment of welfare recipients; the creeping erosion of individual rights stressed in a 2015 Report of the Australian Law Reform Commission; our complicity in the violence perpetrated by our allies in Afghanistan, Iraq & Syria; and our de facto endorsement of Israel’s oppression of all Palestinians in easy reach of its military and its clear determination to create sufficient facts on the ground to undermine any prospect of a two-state solution.

Numbed senses clearly play a part in many of these cases. What of diminished reasoning? It would be hard to argue that Australian public life today exhibits a strong commitment to reasoned argument. The clearest examples of this difficulty concern the recent hounding of Sam Dastyari – essentially by the Government but with the eager complicity of our mainstream media. What Sam has done, besides his continuing allegiance to the NSW Labor Right, is: first, after allowing Chinese-owned businesses to take care of a few small bills a year or so back, he spoke out taking a sympathetic view of China’s stance in the South China Sea dispute; and, second, to warn a Chinese millionaire with close ties to China’s Government that their smart phones might be compromised – a personal security issue of which few regular users of the internet would be unaware. The response of politicians and media commentators to the first was to pay little attention to what Sam actually said (beyond noting that it conflicted with the policies both of the Government and his own Party) and, reading a temporal sequence as evidence of a causal relation, move on to accuse him of taking cash for comment; and to the second, to jump from what he is alleged to have said to the claim that he was undermining the sterling work of ASIO and even, as Peter Dutton asserted, that he was a double agent, working both for the people of NSW who had elected him and for the Chinese Government.

In one case, an opportunity for a much needed policy debate on how best to handle our relationships with both China and the USA was passed over in favour of the serious business of dumping on one’s political opponents, coupled with an apparently unquestionable devotion to our long-standing alliance with America. My point here is simply to note the failure to engage with Dastyari’s argument not to defend what he had to say – frankly, I thought his points were pretty amateurish. In the other case, we saw daring leaps from flimsy evidence to hard conclusions. But in neither case did political or media commentary display any commitment to, or even interest in, the principles of reasoned argumentation. If anything, what came to the fore was a contrary commitment, to the principle that if you say something forcefully and often enough, it will be accepted as true – not so much post- as pseudo-truth, a principle nicely satirised (in the figure of the Bellman) in Lewis Carroll’s classic poem The Hunting of the Snark – which is all that matters for the purposes of political combat. This last point leads me to suggest that, while they operate in different registers, a distrust of, if not contempt for, reason may be as important a part of the Australian Belligerence as the denial of history.

On “The Australian Belligerence”

The Saturday Paper’s editorial “The Australian Belligerence” (23 December, 2017) describes this belligerence as “a drunk speaking louder and louder to make the same point. Its senses are numbed, its reasoning diminished. It is angry at its impotence.” Anger is the dominant element in this unattractive syndrome (which can also be observed in other settler-colonial societies) but there are several others. The editorial focuses on the angry denial of Australian history, while also pointing to a broader set of problems. Sticking with anger for the moment, alongside the denial of history, we might note a refusal to face up to Australia’s present – the stubborn denial of our disgraceful treatment of the asylum-seekers holed up on Manus Island & Nauru; our persistent failure, ritually lamented every year, to make significant progress on Closing the Gap between indigenous & non-indigenous Australians; our mean-spirited treatment of welfare recipients; the creeping erosion of individual rights stressed in a 2015 Report of the Australian Law Reform Commission; our complicity in the violence perpetrated by our allies in Afghanistan, Iraq & Syria; and our de facto endorsement of Israel’s oppression of all Palestinians in easy reach of its military and its clear determination to create sufficient facts on the ground to undermine any prospect of a two-state solution.

Numbed senses clearly play a part in many of these cases. What of diminished reasoning? It would be hard to argue that Australian public life today exhibits a clear commitment to reasoned argument. The clearest examples of this difficulty concern the recent hounding of Sam Dastyari – essentially by the Government but with the eager complicity of our mainstream media. What Sam has done, besides his continuing allegiance to the NSWLabor Right, is: first, after allowing Chinese-owned businesses to take care of a few small bills a year or so back, he spoke out taking a sympathetic view of China’s stance in the South China Sea dispute; and, second, to warn a Chinese millionaire with close ties to China’s Government that their smart phones might be compromised – a personal security issue of which few regular users of the internet would be unaware. The response of politicians and media commentators to the first was to pay little attention to what Sam actually said (beyond noting that it conflicted with the policies both of the Government and his own Party) and, reading a temporal sequence as evidence of a causal relation, move on to accuse him of taking cash for comment; and to the second, to jump from what he is alleged to have said to the claim that he was undermining the sterling work of ASIO and even, as Peter Dutton asserted, that he was a double agent, working both for the people of NSW who had elected him and for the Chinese Government.

In one case, an opportunity for a much needed policy debate on how best to handle our relationships with both China and the USA was passed over in favour of the serious business of dumping on one’s political opponents, coupled with an apparently unquestionable devotion to our long-standing alliance with America. My point here is simply to note the failure to engage with Dastyari’s argument not to defend what he had to say – frankly, I thought his points were pretty amateurish. In the other case, we saw daring leaps from flimsy evidence to hard conclusions. But in neither case did political or media commentary display any commitment to, or even interest in, the principles of reasoned argumentation. If anything, what came to the fore was a contrary commitment, to the principle that if you say something forcefully and often enough, it will be accepted as true – not so much post- as pseudo-truth, a principle nicely satirised (in the figure of the Bellman) in Lewis Carroll’s classic poem The Hunting of the Snark – which is all that matters for the purposes of political combat. This last point leads me to suggest that, while they operate in different registers, a distrust of, if not contempt for, reason may be as important a part of the Australian Belligerence as the denial of history.

Shorten on Australians of the Year letter on Refugees

The best that can be said for Bill Shorten’s reply (on IA, November 24, 2017 ) to the open letter to the PM and Opposition Leader on Manus Island from several former Australians of the year is that it could have been worse. On the plus side, the fact that he replied at all, agreeing that Australia has a moral responsibility to care for the asylum-seekers held in its detention centres, could be read as a grudging admission that Labor bears some responsibility for the appalling developments in the centres on Manus and Nauru, although he took care not to say so directly. In fact, to reply by publishing a letter Independent Australia was a low risk strategy for the ALP. It ensured that his letter would be noticed by most readers of social media, who could be assumed to be more sympathetic to the plight of asylum-seekers than those who view the world mainly through the filters of mainstream media. While the original letter was widely publicised, Shorten’s reply was hardly noticed by mainstream media and said little that could be used against him by Coalition propagandists, News Ltd or commercial broadcasters

While indirectly admitting responsibility, the reply itself recycles the tired Australian pretence that our surplus refugees can and should be resettled in other countries, giving the Coalition little to complain about. No risk there! Yet, the point I want to pick up appears towards the end of Shorten’s reply:

Australia can, and should, do more to respond to the unprecedented levels of irregular global migration that has resulted from conflict and environmental factors in other parts of the world

I agree, but this reference to unprecedented levels of irregular global migration has important implications and there is nothing in Shorten’s letter to indicate that he or the party he leads have taken these implications on board. First, if current levels of irregular migration really are unprecedented, it will be much harder than in the past for Australian Governments to find third countries willing and able to take surplus asylum-seekers off our hands. Labor and Australian Governments more generally should abandon the pretence that this can be done quickly and easily.

Second, the appearance of unprecedented levels of irregular global migration suggests that the 1951 Refugee Convention, designed to respond to European conditions at the time, as I discussed on IA a few weeks ago (November 5, 2017), is now seriously out of date and should be assigned to a convenient rubbish bin. This means that Labor and Australian Governments should stop using the Convention’s outdated definition of a refugee as a bureaucratic hurdle that asylum-seekers must overcome or be turned away. The key passage of this definition identifies a refugee as someone who

owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is out- side the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country (Article 1)

In effect, we use the 1951 Convention as an excuse for refusing to admit asylum-seekers who don’t fit neatly into its definition. Its long past time that we stopped using this definition to distinguish ‘genuine’ refugees from other, allegedly less deserving, asylum-seekers, as if the latter were fakes who arrive at our borders to dishonestly seek asylum.

And it gets worse. The Convention also requires that participating states “shall not impose penalties, on account of their illegal entry or presence, on refugees…” (Article 31). This looks promising since it appears at first sight to suggest that we are required to treat asylum-seekers decently, – that is, not to penalise them. The catch here is that, since the geo-political conditions leading up to the 1951 Convention no longer exist, many, perhaps most, of those requesting asylum may not be refugees as defined by Article 1. In that case, they are not protected by Article 31 of the 1951 Convention. Australia’s practice has been to lock them away while we process their applications – while, in other words, we check their refugee status. Since many can be expected to not satisfy the 1951 definition, there is no governmental sense of urgency about processing them.

None of this mandates harsh treatment of asylum-seekers.Yet, the fear that they may be ripping us off has normally dominated Australian official responses to individual cases. Accordingly, asylum-seekers are presumed guilty until proven innocent, which could easily take a very long time, and our Governments happily label them ‘illegal’. We treat them with precisely the same spirit of generosity with which we expect Centrelink, and now NDIS, to treat Australian welfare recipients, albeit with more individually destructive consequences.

Cancelling a House of Representatives sitting week

I make no claim to special expertise about Australia’s parliament but I write this because, like many of us, I find it difficult to understand how an Australian PM could imagine himself able to cancel a scheduled sitting week of the House of Representatives and how he could get away with it. After his announcement, there was media speculation about the reasons for Turnbull’s decision, much of it suggesting that his motive was basically one of fear, specifically a fear of losing a House vote over a banking Royal Commission, the minimum wage or the ongoing, government-created disaster on Manus. Yet, there seems to have been little informed discussion about what what in our system of government enables him or any other PM to unilaterally cancel a scheduled House sitting week

Since Australia’s system of government is often said to be modelled on that of the UK, in spite of important differences (we have an elected upper house and the UK does not), it is worth recalling the recent decision of the UK’s Supreme Court that Mrs May’s Tory Government could not formally commence the Brexit process without putting the matter to a vote of Parliament. The Court, in effect, ruled in favour of the sovereignty of Parliament, not of the Government appointed by a parliamentary majority.

Of course, Britain’s Brexit process and the cancellation of a few scheduled House sitting days are hardly equivalent, but Turnbull’s & May’s attempts to bypass the House of Reps & Parliament respectively display an impatience with, if not a contempt for, due process. So, what gave Turnbull the power to bypass the House (Mrs May, the Court decided, did not have that power)? The UK Supreme Court’s decision suggests that Turnbull’s small change may have overridden the sovereignty of Parliament, albeit on a smaller, less significant, scale than Theresa May’s Tories.

The Australian Constitution, which has been in the news a lot lately, does not even mention the office of Prime Minister or the Cabinet. So, whatever gives the PM the power to cancel a sitting week, it certainly is not the Constitution. But what of the House of Reps’ Standing Orders? These have changed over the years but the most recent set, as at 13 September 2016, does not give a PM this power either. Standing orders 29 & 30 give the House itself the capacity to determine its schedule of sitting days while enabling the schedule to be changed by a vote of the House or, when the House is not sitting, by the Speaker. Unlike Speakers of the British House of Commons in Britain, Australian Speakers are normally active members of their party and continue to attend party meetings – but they are nevertheless expected to perform the role of presiding officer in a more or less independent fashion.

The confusing usage of the word independent in Australian politics deserves a full discussion of its own. We might begin by noting, for example, that the NSW ICAC, Independent Commission Against Corruption, often touted as a model for a Commonwealth anti-corruption body, is funded by a vote of the NSW Parliament, in effect, by the NSW Government – a fact that, on many understandings of the term, might seem to compromise its independence. Yet, it is sufficient for the moment, simply to note the tension between active party membership and independence. If the cancellation of a scheduled sitting week simply followed a request from the Government, the Speaker’s Office clearly has questions to answer

Of course, the Constitution and Standing Orders do not entirely determine what happens in the House: custom & practice are also important . In practice, the House usually follows, without debate, pretty much the same schedule from one year to the next, with variations to make room for Easter, the date of which varies according to an esoteric Christian calculation that takes no account of Australian political conditions. This special allowance for Christian Holy Days is puzzling given that, according to our most recent Census, only a little over 50% of Australians identify with any version of Christianity while 30% identify themselves as ‘no religion’, many more than the 22.6% who identify as Catholic, Australia’s largest Christian sect. Fortunately, we have no need to worry about avoiding Christmas, which falls in the middle of our Summer and is sacred in a different, barely religious sense. No allowance is made for days sacred to other religions represented in Australia, not to mention the closet knot of devil worshippers who are reputed to convene around midnight in Peter Dutton’s office.

My guess is that the Speaker’s office normally draws up a proposed schedule for the year and consults with the Government & Opposition’s managers of House business and perhaps a few others before reaching a final decision. Governments are usually able to arrange for additional sitting days to get through what they regard as urgent business – again usually without debate. So, custom & practice do allow limited flexibility. Yets, to the best of my knowledge, there is no Australian precedent for a PM unilaterally cancelling a scheduled sitting period.

Turnbull’s decision to shut down a scheduled sitting week of the House of Reps is unprecedented and so, too, is the Speaker and the Department of Parliamentary Services’ decision to go along with it. Does this mean that Australia is moving away from the familiar combination of Legislature, Executive, & Judiciary, effectively relegating the Legislature to a secondary role? I sincerely hope not. To object to the PM’s attempt to bypass the House of Representatives is not to defend the way the House normally operates. There are many things wrong with what passes for Australian Democracy but stealthy, piecemeal reform by a Tory Government is not a promising way forward.

Concentration camp somewhere else

an earlier, slightly different version was published on IndependentAustralis, 22 November 2017.
While I was a junior academic in England, my Head of Department published a short collection of his own poetry, Earthquake Somewhere Else, with the title piece lamenting the fact that while we worried about a few deaths in road or railway accidents, news of thousands dying in an earthquake somewhere else – I think it was Iran – left most of us untouched. As so often happens with moralising writers, this author, John Barron Mays, a sociology Professor and minor British poet, managed to suggest that, because he was sensitive to this discrepancy, he was ethically superior to most of his readers and other compatriots.

Mays’ poem made such an impression on me that I remember little more than its title and its moralising tone. I was reminded of the latter by some of the twitter responses that followed my last posting on IA ( November 5, 2017). For example, the following tweet, asserted on the basis of no evidence – except, perhaps, the author’s impressions – attracted many likes

“unfortunate but its the reality, people care more abt their phones than others lives. When did we become so apathetic to human suffering?”

Here the word ‘unfortunate’ suggests that the author of this tweet and those who liked it do not count themselves among the apathetic people who care less about others’ lives than their own phones. Good for them! – but I think this tweeter’s judgement of other Australians may be both too harsh and politically counterproductive.

It is easy to get the wrong impression about the feelings of our fellow Australians. For example a headline in the Sydney Morning Herald (4 June, 2014) told us that 71% of Australians supported asylum-seeker boat turn-backs. This does look pretty bleak, but bear in mind that the poll tells us only how people responded to one of several questions in a single survey.

We all know that answers to survey questions depend on the specific wording of the question and the context in which it is asked, particularly on what was said before the question is put. What if, for example, respondents were told right before the question “ Australia introduced the turn-back policy, in part, to discourage asylum-seekers from embarking on the dangerous sea-journey from Indonesia” – a statement that may well be misleading in important respects but is not entirely false? This seems intended to dispose respondents to say they support the policy

It is not difficult to find poll results from recent years that suggest a rather different view of Australian attitudes. Moreover careful studies, which rarely produce such exciting headlines, conducted by Andrew Markus over several years for the Scanlon Foundation show that only a minority of Australians are consistently prejudiced against immigrants ( the results are carefully discussed in David Marr’s Quarterly Essay 65, The White Queen: One Nation and the politics of race).

Do Australians really care more about their phones than the lives of the asylum-seekers locked away on Manus? I really don’t know, but I’d be very surprised. My guess, based only on the evidence of my own impressions, is that a poll on the relative importance of our phones and the lives of asylum-seekers would show only a small minority coming down on the side of their phones. Mike Seccombe, writing in The Saturday Paper (11 November 2017), quotes Greens Leader Richard Di Natale:
“I’ve always maintained that when you drill down on specific issues, people are on the progressive side.”

This seems to me about right, except that you may sometimes have to drill down a very long way.

Why do I say the tweeters judgement of other Australians quoted earlier is not only harsh but counter-productive? The general point is that alienating people you want on your side is not a good look. To say that someone cares more about their phones than the suffering of others would be seen by many as offensive, even if it describes exactly how they behave, just as it would be offensive in Australia today to call them stupid, even if they persist in saying stupid things, or racist, even if they are.

This last issue is complicated. White Australians of my generation will have grown up in contexts in which casual racism was commonplace among English-speaking whites. Most of us learned later in life that we should not be or not be seen to be racist – which was mostly a matter of watching what you say. Others will have learned this lesson at school or at home. The complication here is that there are class and educational dimensions, not do much in the lesson itself, but rather in the extent to which it has been taken on board. A minority of white Australians have not learned how to watch what they say – that is, to dissimulate – and resent the idea that they should have to.

For all his faults, John Howard was a master at not talking in explicitly racist terms. He said nothing that could be pinned down as obviously racist when he described One Nation’s supporters as

a group of Australians who did not have a racist bone in their bodies, who believed that in different ways they had been passed over.

Rather than endorsing what are often thought to be their racist sentiments or criticising them for feeling that way, Howard simply implied that he knew how they felt and that it was nothing to be ashamed of. He was trying to win their support. Similarly, when he rejected the ‘black armband’ view of Australian history Howard did not deny that massacres of indigenous people too place inAustralian history, only that this history should not be defined by these massacres – suggesting, in effect, that, even if there were massacres, they were no big deal, but not saying so directly

Compare Howard’s cautious approach to those he regarded as his party’s actual or potential working class supporters to the Left’s treatment of these same working class voters when they accused Howard of ‘dog-whistling’. This accusation draws on the image of the dogwhistle once commonly used in sheep herding. It was designed to sound at a frequency, 20,000Hz or more, which would be inaudible to normal human ears but would be noticed by dogs, whose hearing is generally more sensitive to high-frequency sounds than that of humans. Where humans would be unaffected by the whistle, except for a few splitting headaches, suitably trained or habituated dogs would receive both a sound and the instruction that came with it – telling them, for example, to stop where they were or to round up sheep that had broken away from the main flock – and could be trusted to respond accordingly.

To accuse Howard of dog-whistling is thus to say that Howard’s working class supporters voted his way without thinking – not a flattering image. The accusation that people care more about their phones than the lives of others is not much better as a way of winning them over

What is a refugee?

The shambolic, destructive closure of Australia’s detention centre on Manus Island and New Zealand’s offer to take some of the survivors off our hands offer yet another opportunity to reconsider Australia’s refugee regime.

So, what exactly is a refugee? After noting that the term was first used to refer to Protestants fleeing religious persecution in seventeenth & eighteenth century France, the Oxford English Dictionary identifies the following meaning as one that is in extended use today:
A person who has been forced to leave his or her home and seek refuge elsewhere, esp. in a foreign country, from war, religious persecution, political troubles, the effects of a natural disaster, etc.; a displaced person.
There are two elements here: someone who (1) has been forced to leave home for reasons ranging from war through persecution to natural disaster; and (2) is now seeking refuge elsewhere. However, in today’s Australia, the more specific definition provided by the 1951 UN Refugee Convention is probably the most prominent: it says that a refugee is

any person who… As a result of events occurring before 1 January 1951 and owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is out-side the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country (Article 1.A(2))

This differs from the OED definition, first, in the specific time-frame, before 1951, and second in the reference to a “well-founded fear,” neither of which figure in the OED definition. The reference to 1951 reflects the fact that the Refugee Convention was designed to acknowledge the widespread European failure to provide for refugees, mostly Jewish, from the Nazis or for those displaced by the changes to national boundaries that followed the war. Article 1B specifies that “events occurring before 1 January 1951” should be taken to mean “events occurring in Europe before 1 January 1951”; or “events occurring in Europe or elsewhere before 1 January 1951”. Signatory sates were asked to choose which interpretation they would opt for. European refugees are central here. Care for anyone else appears to be optional

Its hard not to notice the Eurocentric wording of the Convention. The “or elsewhere” reads like the product of non-European states’ efforts to get round the original focus on Europe. At the time of the Convention, there were many displaced persons in other parts of the world, notably in Palestine, South Asia (following partition) and China (from the civil war). Palestine is covered by another part of Article 1: “This Convention shall not apply to persons who are at present receiving from organs or agencies of the United Nations other than the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees protection or assistance” (1D) – an introductory note from the UNHCR gives the example of refugees from Palestine who fall under the auspices of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). Here, Palestinian and other refugees from the Near East are not Europe’s problem! Refugees from South Asia & China may be covered by the Convention’s “or elsewhere”, otherwise they don’t rate a mention.

After a few years, it became clear that any remaining refugees from Nazi oppression and Europe’s post-WW2 chaos were declining in numbers. The reference to 1951 was finally removed by a 1967 Protocol, which left “well-founded fear…etc..” still in place. As David Marr suggested some years ago (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/oct/22/iillegals-refugees-immigration-australia) this part of the Convention’s definition appears to have been written more as an apologetic gesture towards those who fled Nazi persecution and post-war chaos and who Western states so conspicuously failed than as a comprehensive definition of those who might need support in the future. Yet governments, in Australia & throughout the world have read it as the latter. In fact, the Convention’s definition tells signatory states who they are obliged to offer asylum – nothing more. Migrants who do not fall under the definition are people to whom Australia is not obliged by the Refugee Convention to provide asylum.The Convention does not say that we have no responsibilities for theme nor does it give us licence to malign or penalise them – for example, by asserting they are ‘economic refugees’ or not ‘genuine refugees’ or to incarcerate them in conditions that reflect, at best, Australia’s traditionally mean-spirited treatment of welfare recipients. We now have the absurd situation in which ABF officials are left to decide whether undocumented migrants fear of persecution is well-founded. Isn’t it enough that someone is sufficiently afraid to up sticks and run?

In fact, this part of the 1951 definition has always been incomplete. As the OED definition recognises, fear of persecution has never been the only reason people flee their homeland; also important are war and natural disasters. We should bear in mind that ‘natural disasters’ may result from, or be exacerbated by, government policies – as they were in famines in nineteenth century Ireland, in Bengal under British rule, 1930s USSR & the American dust-bowl disaster. Moreover, in dry regions and many Pacific Islands, even small changes – a shift from very little rainfall to none at all, increasing salinization of groundwater or changes to the level of the water-table – can render existing agricultural/pastoral practices unviable. Here, New Zealand’s decision to recognise climate change as producing a legitimate category of asylum-seeker should be a welcome model for Australia.

Its high time that Australians faced up to the world in which we live and in which, for the foreseeable future, there will be many people fleeing droughts, floods, wars and other conditions they regard as intolerable. There is no excuse for not respecting their judgements on such matters. For the moment, Australia can decide who to allow in and who to keep out, but this fortunate condition is unlikely to last. Meanwhile, we should, at least, recognise that our responsibilities to others are not exhausted by the 1951 Refugee Convention.

[An earlier version of this post appeared on Independent Australia, Sunday, November 5, 2017]