Saturday, February 15, 2014

A piece I wrote a few months back about the ABC and The Abbott Government.

Well that didn’t take long did it?

 The Abbott Government has only just reached it’s 100 day milestone and already they’re at war with the ABC.  The Government that promised ‘no suprises’ has indeed surprised no one by getting stuck into the national broadcaster and just as predictably their ideological bedfellows at News Corp Australia have joined in the fight.
The reason for this re-opening of the culture wars is ostensibly the ABC’s decision to partner with the Guardian Australia in reporting leaked cables from U.S whisltleblower Edward Snowden which showed Australia had spied on Indonesian President Susilo Bam Bam Yuyono and his wife.  As embarrassing and difficult as it was for the new government to deal with, the revelations none the less were an important story that was clearly in the national interest.  But as is now standard practice when the operations of the security services become news, The Abbott Government and its barrackers in the Murdoch press  did their level best to distract from the details of the story by shooting the messenger and given one of those messengers was the ABC it presented them with a perfect opportunity to kill two birds with the one stone:  to try and kill the spying story and to declare  war on the ABC.

The invective isn’t confined to the Coalition Government however. Their friends over at News Corp Australia are if anything, even more hostile to the ABC than the Coalition are and thus have used the Snowden revelations as an opportunity to ramp up their usual anti-ABC campaign into a full blown jihad. Their gang of right-wing culture warriors such as Andrew Bolt and Piers Ackerman in the tabloids and Janet Albrechtson, Nick Cater and Chris Kenny at The Australian, have gone from criticising Aunty to variously calling for Managing Director Mark Scott to be sacked and for the whole Corporation to broken up and sold off (with the valuable bits presumably going to Murdoch himself).
But really we shouldn’t be so surprised. While no doubt music to Rupert’s ears, the message was also a clear salvo at the new Prime Minister; this was what was expected of him; that the price for all that fawning political coverage, which helped him reach the highest office in the land, was the removal of an organisation, which for reasons both ideological and financial, the Murdoch’s detest.
It’s not surprising though that Abbott is resistant to take the ABC on. However much the Murdoch media may bag the national broadcaster, the fact remains that the general public simply don’t share their hostility to it. While commercial stations like 9 or 7 may achieve higher ratings, no television station, no media outlet and very few organisations full stop, attract the sort of affection, regard and respect which is afforded to Aunty. It is consistently rated the most trusted source of news in the country ( the least trusted tag is usually reserved for  Murdoch’s rabid  Sydney tabloid, The Daily Telegraph).
This hasn’t deterred the lunar the right however, who in anticipation of an Abbott Government,  have been whipping themselves into a frenzy over the ABC for some time. Since late last year Murdoch’s The Australian has been running what can only be described  as a jihad against the national broadcaster. Almost daily, one of its band of far right culture warriors such as Nick Cater, Janet Albrechtson or Alexander Downer’s former handbag carrier Chris Kenny, fire off missives accusing Aunty of all manner of ills. Kenny in particular has been emboldened in his anti ABC crusade thanks to a tasteless and profoundly unfunny skit produced by The Chaser crew on their latest ABC show The Hamster Wheel, which photo shopped Kenny having anal sex with a dog. Offensive only in its lack of humour, the skit nonetheless outraged Kenny and further inflamed his conservative colleagues in News Ltd and elsewhere to pile in on the national broadcaster.
Not that they need much encouragement. Hatred of public broadcasting is par for the course for conservatives both here and abroad. They resent its existence for many reasons, but the main one is bias.
 Theirs.
They’re biased against the ABC because it’s a taxpayer funded body that is run independently of government and doesn’t carry commercial advertising, which in short, means they can’t control it. They resent the fact that as a result the ABC doesn’t slavishly follow the socially conservative neoliberal agenda that characterises much of the commercial media, especially the Murdoch press and commercial radio. They don’t like how it gives air to opposing voices and viewpoints that if it weren’t for Aunty would be completely ignored or ridiculed. And what really pisses them off is that it does all this with the help of their own taxes. With Murdoch owning 70% of all print outlets, commercial TV and Radio resolutely conservative and Gina Rhineheart circling an ailing Fairfax, the ABC is the only barrier preventing the right from completely controlling debate in this country. This above all is why they want to knock it off.
Of course they can’t come out and say as much; people would think they’re mad (quite rightly). So instead of admitting they’re biased against the ABC, they turn the tables and charge that the ABC is biased against them, that it’s too left wing. This argument is based on the idea that all of the ABC’s producers and presenters across both radio and television are a bunch of bleeding heart pinkos whose sympathies lie with the ALP or even worse, the Greens. This is a particular bugbear of Sydney Morning Herald columnist, Gerard Henderson who’s been arguing this point for years. In fact Henderson’s been moaning about ABC bias for so long once suspects he was doing so even before the broadcaster came into existence in 1932. Gerard never tires of telling his readers that the ABC doesn’t have one – not one – conservative among its legion of presenters and producers across both radio and TV. This is a remarkable statement.  Apparently Gerard, via some unexplained supernatural power, has examined the political leanings and voting intentions of the ABC’s hundreds of presenters and producers nationwide and determined that all of them – every single one - are left-wing. As Gerard himself might say ‘fancy that’.
Perhaps suspecting that the ‘everyone at the ABC is a communist’ line was getting a bit tired, lately the anti-ABC crowd have come up with a more sophisticated argument against the national broadcaster. Seizing upon the upheaval being experienced across traditional media and in particular at Fairfax, the right have now decided that the ABC is responsible for these difficulties and that privatising it or, even better, getting rid of it altogether, would alleviate them. Unfortunately this argument has one major flaw.
It’s nonsense.
The reason why companies like Fairfax are downsizing is because the business model which relies on classified advertising providing the revenue to support journalism, is fundamentally broken. Those classifieds which once filled The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald are now done cheaper and better on online. The whole problem is essentially a result of a change in the advertising market, which has nothing to do with the ABC due to the inconvenient fact it doesn’t carry commercial  advertising.
One of the main proponents of this argument is the Institute of Public Affairs, a right wing think tank for whom breaking up and selling off the ABC is holy writ. Prior to the election there were revelations that the IPA and the Victorian Liberal party were behind a push to have a future Abbott Government sell off both the ABC and SBS because they were no longer relevant in the 21st Century. Being ever the pragmatist, the then Opposition Leader had to reject the idea out of hand for fear of it giving ammunition to a desperate Labor Government.
 The role of the IPA here is a peculiar one. While obviously opposed to the very idea of public broadcasting, (selling the ABC is a key part of the IPA platform along with the sale of just about every other public asset), they are not at all opposed to the idea of appearing on it. In fact it’s difficult to turn on ABC radio or television these days and not find a talking head from the IPA sprouting their usual brand of corporate PR dressed as free market liberalism. They’ve become so ubiquitous on Aunty that it wouldn’t surprise to one-day find John Roskam hosting Playschool.
With all this free publicity you would expect the IPA to be whole hearted fans of the national broadcaster. After all, they don’t even bother to ask who’s funding them? But no, their position on the ABC defies common sense in favour of strict adherence to ideology. The question is whether a new Prime Minister, under enormous pressure from his powerful supporters, will do the same.



An Op-Ed I wrote last year on the birth of the Royal baby and what it means for the republican movement. Published in Literati Magazine.

I’m beginning to wonder if there’s something wrong with me. Here we are, a few months in and nothing; no shivers, heart palpitations or fist pumps. Not even the most mild spring in the step. No matter how hard I try, I just can’t bring myself to give a stuff about Prince George of Cambridge, or as he’s more commonly known, the Royal Baby.
I know, I know, I’m a mean spirited, stone hearted, latte sipping malcontent, but so what. I’m sure young George - who’s no doubt defecating happily into his golden nappies - is as cute and as lovely as any baby. And William and Kate are no doubt besotted with him as all parents are with their new progeny. But that’s where it ends; reserved admiration from the other side of the world.
Why then does it feel, like I’m Robinson Crusoe here? Where are my fellow objectors? Where are the republicans? It’s not the pomp and ceremony surrounding the arrival of the royal offspringthat grates. It’s the insistence that we are all excited; that this was an event everyone had been waiting for. It’s not that we republicans feel left out. More worryingly, it seems as though we’ve all be co-opted in.
Of course we’re talking about a joyous event; the birth of a child. Republican or monarchist, no one wants to come across as a curmudgeonly killjoy during a time of celebration. But if you believe that this country deserves to elect its own head of state and that both the monarchy and inherited privilege are an absurdity, then surely the time to speak up is when they are most prominently on show, whether new born infants are involved or not.
 Instead what we’ve seen over the past few months has been the opposite. It’s been a wall to wall royal extravaganza where every minute detail of the birth has been scrutinised as if it were a complex military operation. We’ve even had The Duchess proclaimed as some sort of feminist icon for not completely concealing her post baby body. Oh, and Australia has just elected the maniacal pro-monarchist Tony Abbott as Prime Minister. All this has led some commentators to conclude that we Australians are just a bunch of a hopeless royal tragics after all and all that silly republican stuff was a just a late 20th Century frolic.
This outcome reflects the contrasting trajectories of the republican movement and the royal family since late 1990’s. As tragic as her death was, it seems the massive outpouring of sympathy following the death of Princess Diana in 1997 has acted as something of a turning point for the Windsor’s, drawing a line under the tawdry tales of adultery, divorce and toe sucking that led them to the point of ridicule by the mid 90’s. Recently they’ve experienced a full blown renaissance with the wedding of William and Kate, the Diamond Jubilee and now the birth of young Prince George resulting in an orgy of pro-monarchy celebration.
In the face of this onslaught, the republicans have vacated the field. Devoid of leaders, direction and passion, and above all, publicity, most Australians would be forgiven for thinking that the republican movement had all but died. Can anyone think of a prominent national leader still advocating a republic? Malcom Turnbull used to, but now he’s in Government he’ll be too busy ripping up the NBN and Tony Abbott would never allow it anyway. And what of Paul Keating? As Prime Minister he did more than anyone to put a republic on the agenda, but his defeat by the arch monarchist John Howard in 1996 provided an early portent for the referendum defeat three years later.
The ongoing effect of that 1999 defeat shouldn’t be underestimated. It was a deflating end to a decade long campaign for an Australian head of state which at times seemed to have an almost unassailable momentum. That the political cunning of Howard along with a lack of unity in the Yes case over the proposed model and the sheer difficulty of achieving a successful referendum, contrived to stymie the republican case, sent the movement into an inevitable funk.
However it’s been the response to that defeat that has been most damaging. In the near decade and a half since, both sides have batted away the issue with the same refrain; that it will not happen until Queen Elizabeth II dies. For republicans, this is a fool’s errand.  It only denies the issue the necessary oxygen it needs to be successful. A republic delayed is a republic denied.
And in any case, it assumes the Queen is some delicate petal who feelings are easily hurt. Please. This is a woman who lived through the Great Depression and the Second World War. This is a woman who has dealt with British Prime Ministers from Churchill to Cameron. This is a woman who hasput up with The Duke of Edinburgh for more than 60 years.
Whether it’s an elderly lady in her dotage or a newborn boy in nappies, it’s Australia’s identity republicans should concerned with, not upsetting the feelings of whoever may be wearing the crown.


Story on the Tasmanian Christmas Carnivals published on the footyalmanac.com.au

It’s said that visiting Tasmania can be like going back in time. While this may be due to the island’s extensive colonial and convict history, combined with a healthy dose of mainland snobbery, in a sporting sense it’s not far wrong, at least during the Christmas and New Year period.
This is when the venerable Christmas Carnivals Series kicks into gear, a running cycling and woodchopping jamboree that covers Northern Tasmania like a travelling circus between Boxing and New Years , just like it has done since the late 19th Century. Unlike many other sporting competitions of this vintage, The Carnivals and its mainland cousins such as The Stawell Gift and The Bay Sheffield, have largely remained intact, even as the barrier between professional and amateur competition which used to set them apart, has long disintegrated. Now the very best runners and cyclists can earn far more while still pursuing their Olympic dreams, making handicap running on a grass track or cycling on a thin strip of bitumen circling a football ground, seem somewhat antiquated.
Like all antiques, what gives them their charm, can also make them impractical and irrelevant. In a world where athletics and track cycling struggle for attention outside the Olympics, their time honoured professional versions seem destined to join Royal Tennis as exhibits in a sporting museum; to be observed for their history and nostalgia, but almost meaningless in a competitive sense.
The Carnivals however, seem determined to stave off this fate for as long as possible. Their epitaph has been written repeatedly over the last 30 years and yet here they are still limping on into their second century. In the 1980’s the series was almost on its deathbed, yet the embrace of Olympic athletes during the 90’s - most notably Cathy Freeman - revived the series to almost unprecedented heights. It was during these halcyon days that my own association with The Carnivals, first as a spectator, then as a competitor, began.
I , like thousands of others, was drawn in by the stardust  of Olympic level athletes such as Freeman (in her pre-Sydney Olympics pomp), Shane Kelly, Craig Mottram, Tatiana Gregoriava and Jana Pittman, coming and racing against the locals. They gave the series a point of attraction that obscured the fact that the type of events they were competing in were  almost obsolete. No one cared that the world’s fastest female 400m runner was giving her opponents a 20 or 30m head start, racing  around the edge of a country football ground while wearing a red vest. The novelty outweighed the actual outcome. Even if the athletes themselves didn’t always seem to be giving their all (this was usually brushed aside as just being part of their preparation), us locals bathed in their collective glow and lapped up their attention.
And soon enough I was amongst it. As a young  middle distance runner I graduated from Little Athletics, to the senior club competition and eventually onto the ‘pros’. Running in the mile races at Latrobe on Boxing Day, Burnie on New Years and the mile and 800 at Devonport in between, was to be the zenith of my brief sporting career. It was to be the only time I would truly be able to test my wares against elite level competition. Like a country galloper lining up in the Melbourne Cup, the beauty of handicap racing meant that I was able to compete well above my station. At least in theory that’s how it works. In truth, the closest I got to Craig Mottram in the Devonport Mile was when he swept passed me with over a lap to go, despite giving me more than a 100 meters head start.  I had to be content with victories in off Broadway events like the Wynyard Mile and a third placing at Ulverstone. The final event of the season would be down on the East Coast at St Helens where competing in the nude gift after a dozen pints at the bar was just as fiercely contested as any event on the track.
Now though the salad days are well and truly over. My running career ended with my arrival at University and these days the Olympic athletes largely stay at home for Christmas. You can sell the locals competing against the best, but the locals against the locals lacks the same cache’. Smaller carnivals like Wynyard and Ulverstone have gone the way of the dodo and it wouldn’t surprise if health and safety regulations have done the same to the nude gift at St Helens. And once again the future of The Carnivals are being questioned.
Against this backdrop I decided to see for myself. I’d seen reports on the news of the Latrobe Carnival on Boxing Day, where the action was played out before empty grandstands and a protest against the winner of the Wheelrace seemed to be the only event of note.  Call it curiosity, or plain old boredom, but for the first time since I actually gave up running I decided I was going to attend as a paying spectator; to see if the old magic really had died.
I rocked up to the first of two nights at the Devonport Carnival and soon realised why crowds were down; an Adult ticket and a program cost me north of 20 bucks. Feeling somewhat lighter in the hip pocket region I walked under the Devonport Oval’s rickety old wooden grandstand to find a surprisingly large crowd had filled it. Not the heaving masses of a decade ago, but hardly the sort of crowd that spoke of an event in its death roes. I wandered the concourse in search of people I recognised; those I used to run with; people I used to go to school with. I soon realised this was pointless; they weren’t any. Those who were there had once thing in common; they were old. The people sitting in the grandstand were doing what they’d been doing for years. The carnivals were part of their Christmas/New Year tradition. Evidence suggested though that younger generations hadn’t followed them. Maybe when they die out the carnivals finally will too.
Like the spectators, the sound of the carnivals has remained the same. As cyclists whisked around the track the excited high pitched whine of cycling commentator Steve Daley filled the air just as I remembered it. His vocabulary hasn’t advanced much either. A cyclist advancing through the field or making a break is still ‘putting POWWWER to pedal’, just as those at the rear are still ‘stone motherless!’. In contrast Brian Paine’s understated delivery still describes the running events, his tone barely changing from the first heat of the 70m to the final of the Gift. Despite being the headline event of the evening I don’t actually realise the finals of the Devonport Gift are on until the winners breast the ribbon at the finish line and collapse from exhaustion and a pile of coaches, family and friends. The finals are being held in daylight. With Devonport traditionally being a night carnival, the heats are usually held in late afternoon before the finals take place under lights. But a quick glance at my program shows that I’m behind the times. The carnival now starts at 2pm not 6. I’ve missed more than half of it.
 The Mens Gift is won by Hobart runner Andrew Robertson, who, as we’re reminded repeatedly for the next 15 minutes, won the this race last year before going on to become the first Tasmanian to win the Stawell Gift at Easter. Chatter inevitably turns to good omens and the possibility of a repeat. Robinson’s coach is Tasmanian athletics luminary Ray Quarrell, who apart from being a fine pro runner himself, coached perennial Stawell contender and multiple Devonport winner Simon Bresnehan. Quarrel is from Dunally near Hobart and his house was destroyed in the bushfires there nearly a year ago. His emotion at the finish can only have been partly because of the result.
The different program has also changed the nature of my old event, the Devonport Mile. Like the Gift and Wheelrace final, the Mile was always run under the cloak of darkness. The organisers presumably thought that it would work better under lights like Friday Night Football. Now though the sun is still high in the sky as the runners finish their warms ups and approach their handicap marks which stretch three quarters of the way around the track. One of the beauties of professional middle distance running is that they are a triumph of women’s liberation, as the girls really do take on the blokes, though there are still separate male and female winners. The girls are usually handicapped out over 300m, just in front of the men in their 50’s, who in a moment of either inspiration or madness, have taken up middle distance running in middle age. They start almost on the same straight as the backmarkers on scratch. With two time winner Craig Mottram no longer deeming the Christmas Carnivals a requisite challenge, organisers have found a posse of Kenyan’s to take his place.
Sadly, by dint of their ability and nationality, they’re given a mark that makes winning a hopeless task. Unlike Mottram in his heyday, this band of Kenyans can only begin to make their way through the field as the bell is being rung for the last lap. By then James Hansen from Launceston had stolen the march and went on to claim a strong win. Madeline Murphy from Riana was the first female home.
By now the shadows were lengthening. Where the oncoming of darkness once heralded the arrival of the feature events, it now had punters heading for the exits. Of course, this was only the halfway point of this Devonport Carnival, with the Devonport Wheel being the headline act of the following night’s action. And beyond this, the New Years Carnival at Burnie, would bring in 2014 in a few days time. But tonight’s spectators including myself, had seen enough.
Most making their way under the grandstand and out to the carpark, were satisfied having seen another night of Christmas Carnivals entertainment. I left satisfied that the whole thing still exists at all.



Op-Ed on the proposed East West Link published in The Kings Tribune

Published in The Kings Tribune Wednesday 12 February 2014

The EastWest Link project has support only from the corporations who will profit from it and the media that supports them. Why is the Victorian government ignoring their constituents in favour of those groups?

They’re nothing if not predictable, News Corp. Another day another table thumping editorial from Melbourne’s Herald Sun denouncing protesters disrupting the progress of controversial East West Road Tunnel. Just as the protesters turn up day after day in Melbourne’s inner north and attach themselves to drilling rigs in order disrupt the early stages of this divisive project, so does Melbourne’s Murdoch owned tabloid rail with righteous indignation at opponents of the project it variously labels pests, rabble rousers, ratbags and any other clich├ęs they can think of.
They were at it again recently during Melbourne’s week long heatwave, frothing at the mouth over revelations that the police had reneged on a deal with protesters to stop drilling during the oppressive weather. While protesters had thought they’d convinced the police to disallow drilling during the heatwave, so that both they and the workers alike could stay out of the heat, Vic Pol and the drilling contractors pulled a swifty on them by secretly moving their drilling gear overnight and continuing work elsewhere without the protestor’s knowledge.
Of course the Hun was only too happy to rub their noses in it. Rather than strike a deal with protesters during extreme weather events, the paper’s editorial urged the police to throw the book at them. Instead of respecting their right to protest - a fundamental tenant of democracy - Murdoch’s Melbourne minions wanted the protestors charged and prosecuted. Apparently this tunnel is so desperately needed that democracy itself should be briefly suspended so the bulldozers and dump trucks can start rolling in.
So what you may ask? After all, the Herald Sun and News Corp’s other Australian tabloids, love bagging protestors almost as much as they love supporting Tony Abbott, denying Climate Change and running pictures of football wags. Excuse the pun, but the Herald Sun railing against the East West Link protestors, isn’t front page news.
However this particular campaign is instructive for a variety of reasons.
It’s become so shrill and persistent that one suspects the Hun knows it’s losing the argument and therefore has decided to double down rather than retreat. A quick glance at the opinion polls on both the question of whether the tunnel should be built and on the performance of the Napthine Government, show that both are on the nose with the public. Even the paper’s own letters page is often filled with negative comments the day after the project is given coverage. This then makes bagging the protestors an easy diversion for both the paper and the Government. It’s much easier to smear activists (as the Herald Sun did with an extraordinary front page attack on protest leader Anthony Main) and focus on frivolous sideshows like a protest van being parked in a disabled zoneor the complaints of a fish and chip shop owner, than addressing the far more serious questions that hang over this project. Questions that not only cast doubt over the necessity of this tunnel, but also over the development of infrastructure policy in Australia and the way in which vested interests seemingly always trump the will of the public.
Let’s do a quick re-cap.
The Coalition Government was elected, somewhat unexpectedly, at the 2010 State Election, largely on the back of its plans to invest in public transport infrastructure. The Victorian Liberals committed to projects such as the Doncaster line, a rail link to the airport and the daddy of them all, The Melbourne Metro tunnel linking the inner west to the inner south. Melbourne would follow cities across the world in addressing booming population growth and traffic congestion by investing in public transport.
Not surprisingly, Melbournians who’d been cramming into trains and trams in ever increasing numbers, loved it.
Across the city, seats along major rail lines such as Frankston and Pakenham, fell to the Liberals as they swept to power for the first time this century. Finally these mythical rail projects that premiers dating back to Sir Henry Bolte had promised, yet failed to build, would become a reality. Melbourne’s suburban rail network would receive its first major expansion since before World War II. More than any of his predecessors, the new Premier, Ted Baillieu, had a mandate to build public transport infrastructure.
Yet just over three years on and not only has Baillieu been jettisoned, but the rail projects for which people have been too. And in their place is a project no one voted for, because the Coalition ruled it out in the lead up to that election: The East West Tunnel.
Like the aforementioned rail projects, The East West Tunnel has been spoken of for decades. If built, it would link the Eastern Freeway with Citylink and provide a much easier route across the city than currently offered by the chronically congested Alexandria Parade. Yet the project has never gotten off the ground because any potential benefit it may provide is simply dwarfed by the enormous cost. The most rigorous cost benefit analysis of the project was undertaken by Sir Rod Eddington in his 2008 transport planproduced for the former Labor Government. It found that every dollar put into the project would produce only 50 cents in potential economic benefits. In other words it was a complete non-starter. The Napthine Government has since cobbled together its own cost benefit analysis that somehow estimates a benefit of $1.40 for every dollar spent. We don’t know how this figure was arrived at, because unlike the Eddington analysis, the report has not been released.
This is in keeping with Government’s entire approach to the issue, where detail has been scarce and secrecy abundant. The backflip on rejecting the tunnel in opposition to embracing it in Government, has never been explained. Nor have they specified just why it has jumped the queue to become the Government’s number one project, when the Metro Rail Tunnel is still ranked as Victoria’s most urgent priority by Infrastructure Australia. Only a short form business case has been released to the public and despite Premier Napthine’s repeated claims that the tunnel will be a “congestion buster”, we don’t know exactly how this will be the case and how it will be any better at reducing congestion than the public transport projects his Government was elected to build.
And then there is the politics.
Surely, having been elected on a public transport platform they have since put on the backburner, you would think the Government would seek a mandate from the people for its change of plans and take the East West Link to the election. After all, what’s the big rush, the election is due this November.
But no.
Keen to avoid those pesky voters having a say, Premier Denis Napthine has pledged to sign construction contracts prior to the election, contracts that Opposition Leader Daniel Andrews has curiously promised to honour despite his party opposing the project.
So as it stands, The East West Tunnel is still odds on to go ahead, even if the Napthine Government is turfed out of office later this year and replaced by a Labor Opposition which publically opposes it.
Road will yet again trump rail.
Critics will point to the strength of the roads lobby – a mysterious collection of business and political interests that relentlessly and successfully promote the advancement of road projects – as being the root cause of this imbalance. A resulting effect has been that Australians have become experts at building roads, meaning knowledge, expertise and equipment are readily available and cheap, while rail suffers from the reverse. There is also a healthy dose of ideology involved. The individualist nature of car use clearly appeals to the neo-liberal right in the Coalition, News Corp and the business community, who no doubt lump proponents of taxpayer funded, collectivist, public transport, in with environmentalists as a bunch of closet communists. This probably explains the Herald Sun’s one eyed proselytising on the issue and the Abbott Government’s gleeful promotion of road projects and its outright disdain for urban rail.
All this is cold comfort for Victorian commuters and those who care about ethical evidence based public policy. Even if their wishes are validated at the ballot box, they now know unequivocally that it’s the voice of vested interests that speaks the loudest.
And they wonder why people are protesting?

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Axis Of Freedom


If you didn’t know any better one could almost assume Rupert Murdoch’s latest visit to our shores was something of a victory lap, coming so soon after the Sun King’s latest triumph in knocking over the Gillard Government’s pesky media reforms.

Barely two weeks after his troops at News Ltd forced Communications Minister Stephen Conroy into a humiliating back-down on a suite of media reforms which, among other horrors, would’ve introduced a public interest advocate to keep it accountable, Rupert and his trusted offsider and fellow Aussie Robert Thompson were back in town. While business was no doubt the reason for him deigning us with his presence, the great man took time out to be guest speaker at the 70th anniversary dinner for right wing Melbourne think tank the Institute of Public Affairs. There he was able to rub shoulders and sip Kool Aid with the likes of Tony Abbott, George Pell, Andrew Bolt and of course IPA hacks like John Roskam and Tim Wilson who’d taken time out from appearing on the ABC to kiss the great man’s feet.

The buzzword of the evening was freedom.  As the slogan alluded, ‘The IPA Fighting for Freedom for 70 Years’. Freedom of speech; freedom of the press; freedom from any accountability or oversight; freedom for corporations and billionaires to whatever they bloody well like; you name it, the IPA and their fellow travellers in Murdoch’s News Ltd and the Liberal Party had fought for it and won it. Without this axis of freedom, communism would surely reign.

The most recent and prominent example of their efforts to uphold freedom is their trashing of the affor-mentioned media reforms.

To put it mildly, the Axis of Freedom and  News Ltd  in particular, hated the prospect of any government oversight of their journalism. Whether Conroy’s legislation was actually as a bad as they made out was a moot point, but the reality is that the Axis screeched  so loudly about what they saw as an egregious threat to freedom of the press, free speech and democracy itself, that it was impossible for any sensible analysis of the bills to be heard. The highpoint in this barrage of hyperbole was the Daily Telegraph’s immortal front page which compared Communications Minister Stephen Conroy to Joseph Stalin. In the wake of such an offensive comparison the Tele duly apologised; to Joe. This, along with the absurdly short time frame that Conroy allowed for the bills to be assessed before a vote, lead to their premature death.

This scenario closely mirrors that involving another piece of contentious legislation that the Axis was able to force the Gillard Government to retreat from, the Human Rights and Anti- Discrimination Bill. The bill was aimed at consolidating and simplifying existing anti-discrimination laws such as those relating to racial and sex discrimination, with the racial discrimination clauses coming in for particular attention from the Axis. Again their response was to simply cry FREEDOM OF SPEECH long enough and loud enough for any dissenting view or nuanced opinion to be completely drowned out and ignored. New Attorney General Mark Dreyfus has since announced that the most contentious parts of the bill have being sent back to the department for re-examination, while his predecessor and the originator of the bills, Nicola Roxon, has  resigned from her position and will soon leave the parliament.

And who could forget the wailing and gnashing of teeth from the Axis when one of their favourite sons, Herald Sun firebrand Andrew Bolt, was found guilty of breaching the Racial Discrimination Act in the Federal Court in 2011. The judgement found that two of Bolt’s columns published in 2009 in which he attacked light skinned aborigines for identifying as indigenous while appearing otherwise, were riddled with errors and had an intimidatory and humiliating tone.

Such matters were of little interest to the Axis though who just screamed FREEDOM OF SPEECH ad- nauseum in response. Bolt himself entered the fray the day after the judgement squealing about this freedom of speech being curtailed on the front page of the Herald Sun. The irony of Australia’s most widely read columnist complaining about his lack of free speech from the front page of the country’s highest selling daily paper seemed lost on the man himself. Proving that the Axis stick together the IPA took out full page ads in the national press defending Bolt’s right to smear people on the basis of falsehoods and Tony Abbott has politely agreed to abolish the part of the act under which he was found guilty if elected Prime Minister.

So often have the Axis of Freedom shouted freedom of speech  everywhere and anywhere, that it is at risk of becoming one of those hackneyed, go-to phrases that conservatives reflexively reach for when challenged. Much like the how the term ‘politically correct’ has been used to convey the frustration of people who can’t be bigoted anymore, or the way ‘class warfare’ is used whenever wealthy people are asked to contribute their fair share to society, conservatives shouting about freedom of speech seem to be doing so to preserve the conservative hegemony that controls much of our press and public discourse rather than any altruistic concern for freedom and plurality.

If they really were so concerned about freedom of speech and freedom of the press maybe they would’ve been much more vocal about some recent developments that really threaten both of these ideals.

Gina Rhineheart is Australia’s richest person and the world’s richest woman. She is also the largest shareholder  in Fairfax Media, publisher of The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, the only opposition to News Ltd.’s dominance of Australian print media. The mining heiress is also a well known conservative with close links to The Liberal Party, IPA and is an unabashed admirer of Andrew Bolt. With such a close association to the Axis of Freedom it was no surprise that she was an honoured guest at the IPA’s Anniversary Dinner, where she seated next to, you guessed it, Rupert Murdoch.

Rhineheart’s lawyers recently served a subpoena against Fairfax journalist Adele Ferguson, that’s right a Fairfax journalist. The subpoena is aimed at forcing Ferguson to reveal her sources for stories she has written about a protracted legal battle between Rhineheart and her children over control of a family trust. If Ferguson refuses to protect  her sources, a fundamental tenant of journalism, she could go to jail. If surely there is a threat to freedom of speech and freedom of the press in Australia it is the ultra-rich using the courts to silence journalists reporting on their affairs.  The fact that Rhineheart is doing it to a journalist working for the very same company she has invested heavily in, is even more remarkable.

  As Ferguson’s Fairfax colleague Nick McKenzie pondered ‘ it makes one wonder whether she cares about journalism at all’.

That’s something everyone’s been wondering since Rhineheart bought a large slice of Fairfax back in late 2011. The Fairfax board however have always been fairly sure and as a result have refused to allow Rhineheart a seat on the board unless she agrees to sign the company’s charter of editorial independence. Rhineheart has duly resisted to sign the charter and her pursuit of journalist’s such as Ferguson and The West Australians’s Steve Pennells shows why; she’s more interested in silencing desenting voices than investing in media or upholding any semblance of press freedom

Which brings us to Rhineheart’s presence at the IPA Dinner and the strange silence from Axis of Freedom on an issue one would expect they’d be all over.  While Rhineheart, Bolt and Murdoch were having a whale of a time at the IPA shindig, those truly concerned about press freedom were adding to the more than 30,000 signatures on the change.org petition calling on Rhinehart to drop her actions against Ferguson and Pennells. While Bolt was acting as MC for the night, he was being called upon by other journalists to come out in support of Ferguson, knowing only too well what it’s like to be dragged through the courts for something he’s written. And did Rupert Murdoch use his seat next to Miss Rhinehart to urge her to cease her censorious ways?

 Not likely.

Because, if we’ve learnt anything from the behaviour of the Axis, it’s that freedom is important, but not as much as money and power. Rhineheart  is rumoured to be a major donor to the IPA and has worked closely with their attempts to develop Australia’s north. She is known to be close to Andrew Bolt who has recently used his various media appearances to act as something of an unofficial press secretary for the mining magnate. And Murdoch’s News Ltd.’s outlets have practically demanded she be allowed on the Fairfax board, knowing full well that it would further decrease the ideological plurality of the Australian press and further enhance the conservative control over of it.

And this of course is the ultimate goal of the Axis; the freedom of right-wing speech.

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Friday, June 24, 2011