Archive for March, 2013

Roxon’s Bill and the Obscene Publications Act: Compare

March 12th, 2013 | Uncategorized | 0 Comments

YOU only have to read The Sydney Morning Herald to see how easy it has become to take offence and how difficult it is to crack a joke. On Friday the tabloid devoted two mirthless pages to the semantic crimes of Jeremy Clarkson, who was reprimanded for sexist, racist and homophobic humour.

Clarkson’s most egregious expressions were published in a handy list. He described one car as “very ginger beer”, which, as you won’t be amused to learn, is slang for a gentleman who is good with colours. He declared Romania was “Borat country, with gypsies and Russian playboys”, and proposed a design for “a quintessentially German car” with Hitler-salute turn signals and a “satnav that only goes to Poland”.

None of that should be considered the least bit funny; we can be sure that these are verbal blunders with no satirical or ironic intent because they are printed under the headline “Foot in mouth”. Nanny blogger Mia Freedman wagged a finger in all the right places, telling the Herald that Clarkson and his fellow Top Gear presenters were “dialling up sexism under the guise of ‘aren’t we being naughty boys’.” Indeed they are, Ms Freedman, and therein lies the program’s charm.

Australians, as we know, don’t make anything any more. We can’t even make people wince in a way that once came naturally; we are forced to import British television programs to satisfy our need for umbrage.

Read the rest of my article in The Australian

Across the Black Soil Plains

March 10th, 2013 | Uncategorized | 0 Comments

Alastair sent me a gentle reminder to name the painting at the top of this page. It is George Lambert’s Across the black soil plains which hangs in the  Art Gallery of NSW. It is easily missed, hanging as it does at an uncomfortable height above Tom Robert’s masterpiece, The Golden Fleece.

My colleague Eric Lobbecke drew my attention to it when I was searching for an image to define the lucky culture. Lambert’s work gives a taste of the spirit of late 19th century Australia and its main project: to tame a barren continent with mind and body, and convert it to productive use.

The underlying philosophy was described in the journals of the day as the Spirit of Progress. It is built upon the central idea of the Enlightenment, a spirit that looks to reason and enterprise rather that divine benevolence to advance the human condition.

For an introduction to the philosophy that underpins the Spirit of Progress I recommend the American historian Charles A Beard’s introduction to a marvellous book by J.B. Bury, The Idea of Progress: An Inquiry into its Growth and Origin (1920). The nub of it is this: that the human instinct for improvement, combined by the application of modern science through technology, is is the motive force for progress:

…the passionate quest of mankind for physical comfort, security, health and well-being generally is behind the exploratory organs of technology. Until people prefer hunger rather that plent, disease rather than health, technology will continue to be dynamic…

Meanwhile, in another galaxy…

March 5th, 2013 | Uncategorized | 8 Comments

The government’s false claim that the Roxon bill merely consolidates existing laws and does not extend them demands an independent inquiry, says Patrick Parkinson, Professor of Law at the University of Sydney.

His Sydney Law School Research paper examining the overreach of Roxon’s bill suggests (almost) that human rights lawyers are living on another planet:

One of the problems is that the experts in the field tend to have a homogeneity of viewpoint that is arguably far outside the mainstream. Just as environmental law experts are almost uniformly in favour of stricter laws to protect the environment, so anti-discrimination lawyers typically favour an extended reach for anti-discrimination law.

I don’t like what you say, but I’ll defend your right to think it

March 5th, 2013 | Uncategorized | 2 Comments

When the recently appointed head of the Human Rights Commission, Gillian Triggs, turned up to answer senators’ questions about the Roxon bill in January, she might have expected the easy ride enjoyed by her predecessors, who frequently used such platforms to wag their fingers at the sorry creatures of democracy who are forced to seek a popular mandate, I write a piece on spiked. Professor Gillian Triggs’ grilling by Senator George Brandis deserves reading in full, particularly the section from page 67 onwards.

The limits of offence

March 5th, 2013 | Uncategorized | 7 Comments

Should it be illegal to send offensive letters to the families of diggers killed in Afghanistan? John M. Green asks this difficult question in Business Spectator in discussing the case of Man Haron Monis, who has been criminally charged with doing just that under section 471.12 Criminal Code.

Discrimination Consolidation Bill: the backlash

March 4th, 2013 | Uncategorized | 0 Comments

There is a danger of speaking too soon, but the Andrew Bolt case, and Nicola Roxon’s doomed Discrimination Consolidation Bill, sinking under the weight of its own absurdity, may well go down as the catalysts for a revolt that stopped the expansion of the human rightism in its tracks.

In The Australian today, I discuss how overreach may kill the human rights project in Australia. Roxon’s bill does not merely consolidate rights as it pretends, it packs their lunch and sends them off on another breezy adventure who knows where.

The Lucky Culture: out soon

March 4th, 2013 | Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Australia’s luck did not fall from the sky; it had to be torn from the earth in a triumph of mind over muscle. 

The secret of Australia’s good fortune is the Australian character, the nation’s greatest renewable resource.  Liberated from the constraints of the old world, Australia’s pioneers mined their reserves of enterprise, energy and ingenuity to build the great civilization of the south. Their over-riding principle was fairness: everybody had a right to a fair go and was obliged to do the right thing by others.

Today that spirit of egalitarianism is threatened by the rise of a new breed of sophisticated Australians who claim to better understand the demands of the age. Their presumption of superior virtue tempts them to look down on others and assert the right to rule.

Half a century after Donald Horne named Australia ‘The Lucky Country’, Nick Cater takes stock of the new battle to define Australia and the rift that divides a presumptive ruling class from a people who refuse to be ruled.

The Lucky Culture is a bold and original take on 21st century Australia and its people. Sometimes rousing, often provocative and always good-humoured, its unexpectedly moving message cannot be ignored.

The Lucky Culture And The Rise of Australia’s Ruling Class will be published in May, 2013 by HarperCollins Australia.



Guantanamo on the Molonglo

March 4th, 2013 | Uncategorized | 6 Comments

 Nick Cater in The Australian, February 23, 2013

A BED at $531 a night is a little on the steep side, even for Canberra, but then human rights-compliant correctional centres don’t come cheap. The ACT has the most expensive prisons in the country, the Productivity Commission reported last year. The South Australians will lock you away for a fraction of the cost – $254 – but then the screws at Yatala Labour Prison do not have to worry about the ACT Human Rights Act.

Canberra’s Alexander Maconochie Centre is the first modern prison in Australia to be designed by do-gooders. Late last year it also became the first prison in Australia to be raided by police investigating a child pornography ring. Designing a model prison is the easy part; finding model prisoners is another matter altogether. What’s the criminal class coming to when you can’t give them a laptop and an email address without them getting up to no good?


It claims to be the first prison in Australia to provide prophylactics, but evidently with mixed success. One inmate in the mixed-sex facility is in the process of applying for early release on the grounds that she is expecting a baby at Easter, a month before the end of her 12-month sentence.

Let’s hope ACT Human Rights Commissioner Helen Watchirs has better luck with the needle exchange program likely to begin soon, despite opposition from prison officers. As Watchirs sees it: “To deny protection against disease transmission in such a high-prevalence and closed population in prison may be viewed as inhumane.”

Illegal drugs are, of course, illegal, even if administered within prison walls. Before ACT detention centres were made human rights-compliant, prison officers strip-searched prisoners after every visit, since experience showed that illegal substances did not just materialise out of thin air. They would search cells at random and make prisoners pee into bottles.

These barbaric practices are frowned upon by Watchirs who, for reasons best known to the ACT government, seems to have an inordinate influence when it comes to running prisons, or “centres” as she prefers to call them. Strip-searching and urine-sampling are “intrusions into privacy”, says Watchirs, and inmates find them “inherently degrading”. Prisoners subjected to random cell searches “were unhappy that their belongings ended up strewn in a messy pile, sometimes on the floor”.

Watchirs’s very modern views on incarceration were set out a length in 2007 audit of ACT correctional facilities conducted by the ACT Human Rights Commission. Progressive-thinking readers of a dreamy disposition will find her ideas for a “healthy prison” inspiring; others may regard them as utterly bonkers.

The ACT Correctional Service must “shift from a culture that privileges control and security over detainees’ needs,” she says. “The emphasis should be on ‘dynamic security’ – that is, security based on good professional relationships between staff and detainees rather than physical barriers, uses of force and the use of restraints. Instead, meeting detainees’ needs (is) to be acknowledged as assisting to maintain security and order in the prison.”

The customer is always right, even if he or she is doing time. Criminals are ready to mend their ways if we ask them nicely. With that in mind, anti-bullying and harassment training is recommended for all corrective services officers. Naturally, as with all visionary cultural reforms, there will need to be “procedures”. We once took it for granted that stopping prisoners brawling was part of a day’s work for a prison guard. Nowadays, says Watchirs, we need a “procedure on inter-detainee violence and bullying which formalises good staff practices of actively watching for and acting on signs of bullying”. Mindful of prisoners’ house-proud dispositions, there must be “a more orderly and respectful procedure” for searching cells. Guards once got through the day by looking tough and carrying a truncheon; now we require procedures to assess their ability “to maintain effective relationships with detainees”.

Naturally, an order to disrobe and touch your toes is no longer appropriate. Watchirs called for a new strip-search procedure that “will be less confronting for people”, a procedure that avoids “the complete removal of all clothing”. In other words, a Clayton’s strip search: the way to get nude without getting your gear off. It is no laughing matter, however. Watchirs reminds us that the European Court has found routine strip-searches violate the prohibition of torture and cruel or degrading treatment or punishment in the European Convention on Human Rights.

In the topsy-turvy world of the ACT Human Rights Commission, prison guards are reinvented as service providers and criminals are transformed into victims.

To suggest that a prisoner might choose to put a needle in their arm, or not, would be unfair.

In 2007, Watchirs and her staff conducted lengthy interviews with a group of 36 prisoners and asked them what the worst thing was about being locked up. The most common answer was boredom and loss of liberty, followed by a loss of privacy, which might suggest that the prison was doing its intended job.

Not so, says Watchirs, who told a meeting of human rights lawyers in Sydney three years ago: “People in detention are extremely vulnerable to abuses of power, and this power imbalance imposes a continual moral duty on authorities and officials to act justly, eg abuses of power – Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib.”

The stakes are clearly higher than we thought.