Fifteen Years Since September 11th

Apparently a previous generation would at social events ask each other “Where were you when Kennedy was assassinated?”. It was a touchstone event, the kind of event where you remember when you first felt that sinking feeling when you heard the news.

The terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001 are an event like that. News so extraordinary it is burned into ones memory.

I was living in a share house at the time. I was about to leave one morning when my housemate turned on our shitty little television. This was Wednesday morning, the 12th, our time. The first thing I saw footage of the second plane hitting the World Trade Center. I can still see the shot – a female reporter interviewing a man in front of the burning tower, then in slow motion a plane destroying itself hitting the second tower. The two people in the foreground cringed in terror.

For a few moments I thought I was watching a movie. I said “What movie is this from?” My housemate said “It’s not a movie, it actually happened.” I asked what had happened to the towers. She said “They’ve both collapsed.”

The next thing I said was “Oh fuck, there’s going to be a war.”

As a student of history, the first thing I thought of was the 1993 Bombing of the World Trade Center, which was committed by Al-Qaeda. I assumed, and it was eventually borne out, that they had tried again to destroy the World Trade Center. This time they succeeded.

I had not visited New York at that time, but when I did finally make it there in 2009, I visited the area. By then, it was a massive building site. But mostly what I noticed was what an amazing, diverse and inclusive city New York is. One that happily welcomed people of all faiths and backgrounds. The attacks revealed this, those killed were from all over the world, including significantly a number of Muslims. Why, I wondered, would you attack a city like that? The Pentagon and the White House as targets makes significantly more sense. If your angry with the United States, those are two of the centres of power and two powerful symbols. But the twin towers in New York, what did they hold that made them targets? They were mixed-use commercial buildings, owned by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. But they were also for a time the tallest buildings in the world, and dominated the New York skyline. If your view of United States included New York as the centre of American capitalism – which is not an unreasonable assumption – then the Twin Towers become a powerful symbol and indeed target.

After the attacks I called my sister, who was living in Indonesia at the time. I worried that there might be more attacks about to happen. She’d been up all morning fielding calls from people.

The television here in Melbourne played American news channels almost solidly for nearly two weeks after the attacks. It took a long while for the shock to wear off and for normal programming to resume. And I watched it, day and night. In fact that’s what I had been doing the night, our time, the attacks happened. If I’d have stayed up for ten more minutes I’d have seen it unfold in real time.

Can anyone else remember the extraordinary wave of sympathy that the world had for the United States? In the weeks and months afterwards everyone the world over was hugely supportive of the US. And what did the leaders of the United States do with this? Did they harness the help of the entire world to catch and persecute the people who had attacked them? Did they use the diplomatic help of powerful allies to make sure this never happened again? Did they start a global movement to address the root causes of terrorism and try and cure the ills that make people angry enough to fly planes into buildings? No they did not. The neoconservatives in the White House, Bush and Cheney chief amoungst them, but particularly Cheney, used the attacks and the aftermath as an excuse to start two wars in Afghanistan and Iraqi. Like I said within minutes of hearing of the attacks, there was a war.

Invading Afghanistan made some local sense. That lawless nation was host to terrorist training camps and other support for attacks outside their borders. But attacking Iraq made no sense at all. History has shown that they had planned that before the attacks took place. For the record, Iraq and Saddam Hussein and his regime had nothing to do with September 11th.

And so, not eighteen months later, in early 2003, I found myself with millions of other people marching against an unnecessary war. One which everyone said at the time would end up lasting for years and kill hundreds of thousands of civilians. And how right we were….

Discours sénateur Robert Byrd ( IRAK ) by sattva

Watching the Count in the seat of Batman

For reasons of history, I’ve been most interested in the seat of Batman this election. I lived in Batman on and off for more than twenty years. I was there when Brian Howe was the member, then Martin Fergusson, and finally David Feeney. I was distantly involved in the preselection that chose Feeney, supporting one of two fine women who were running for the seat. Needless to say the factions and the stacked branches decided that rather than a local woman, a certain Feeney would be parachuted in after losing his seat in the senate. This was a major factor in my eventual leaving of the ALP.

So in stepped Alex Bhathal, a Greens candidate who had run in the seat four times prior to the 2016 election. The contrast between her and Feeney are striking. Having walked away from the ALP, I decided to support the Greens.

The contrast between the two parties is striking. The branch meetings I made it to had become dull affairs. Of an official hundred or so members, maybe seven would turn up. I’d seen the members list for the FEA (Federal Electoral Assembly, the group that chooses who will stand for the ALP in a given federal seat). There were some thousand members in Batman, a suspiciously large number of which shared surnames and postal addresses.

The Greens meetings, however, are lively affairs. A huge diversity of people and opinions. And a striking number of former members of the ALP. I imagine the Labor party of old was like this, before it became a machine for gaining power and not a broad-based party of involved members.

I popped in a few times to Alex’s campaign office. My estimate of the average age of the volunteers there was about twenty.

Election day, I was scrutineering in a booth in North Reservoir. The booth was heavily Labor, nearly half the votes cast going to Feeney. I watched sadly as the third place getter, a Liberal called George Souris, had his preferences flow largely to Feeney. Which is not the say they were preferenced high in the order, the Liberal how-to-vote card had Feeney tenth and Bhathal eleventh.

There was a huge swing to the Greens in the seat, over 9%, but it was not enough. As I watched the tallies on the night I knew it was not looking good. To not be leading on the night is never good. Postal votes and declaration votes tend to flow to the conservatives. Which in this case meant they were flowing to Feeney. So despite Bhathal getting more first preference votes than Feeney, she has trailed since the night by around 1.5%. I watched the count with sadness, reloading the AEC page over and over hoping that somehow the lead would change. At the time of writing, the seat still hasn’t been declared, but the ALP has held on.

Why do I care so much? I have an instinctive dislike for Feeney. He’s not a good nor representative local member – indeed he is not even local. His elevation to the seat was not a transparent nor democratic. If it was it’s likely Mary-Anne Thomas would have gotten the nomination. And she’d have been a popular member. But no. He represents what is wrong with the ALP and with politics in general. The machine has spoken.

And once again the Greens, a party who regularly poll 10 to 12% of the vote across the nation, are left with but one seat in the lower house, and not, say, the fifteen they would expect from that level of support. And for another three years there will only be a tiny number of voices in Canberra railing against the offshore detention of children. I despair of our leaders and our representatives, and the callous nation we have become.

Further Thoughts About Election Day

I’ve recalled a few more conversations and events from election day. On top of those I documented a few days back.

While I was handing out how-to-vote cards at a booth I’ve now discovered was called North Reservoir, we were approached by a woman with a very confusing question. She asked me and my fellow Green what would happen if she voted Green and Alex Bhathal was elected – would it still be a Labor seat? For a moment we had no idea what she meant, did she mean that if there was a hung parliament that the Greens would side with Labor to form government? After a few minutes discussion it turned out that she didn’t understand that one electorate has one member who can be defeated by another candidate at the election, from a different political party. After we explained she was most relived, took a flier and went and voted.

I’ve never thought our system of democracy here in Australia was particularly complicated. The nation is divided into seats, each of which is represented by one member in parliament. Every three years or so an election is held, you number some boxes on a green piece of paper, eat a sausage, and the votes are tallied. The candidate with the most votes wins, and represents the people of their seat and their party in parliament. I’m going to suggest to the AEC that they do some kind of refresher course, a broadcast perhaps, just so every knows the basics.

I’ve also recalled more of the conversation I had with that revolting woman from the Australian Christians. We were arguing the merits of the Safe Schools program, which at heart is designed to reduce the bullying of LGBTI teens. I said “You know gay and lesbian teens have one of the highest levels of suicide?”. She ignored me. On the subject of same-sex marriage, I said “You’re effectively denigrating the relationships of some of my good friends.” This also had no impact. In retrospect I should have told her that I am a known donor for two lesbian couples – that would have sent her into a lather. Her arguments all boiled down to a veiled homophobia and a very very traditional view of the nuclear family.

As I said, I felt sad for my cross-dressing, queer, lesbian and gay friends. When it’s getting so people are afraid to show affection to their same-sex partners in public, it makes me feel like intolerance is in the ascendancy. Everywhere should be a safe place. Every school should be safe.

I’m an atheist, but I’m relatively certain that Christianity claims to be a peaceful and inclusive religion, where people are taught not to judge. I might be an atheist, but sometimes I’m a better christian than those who profess the faith. A better christian than those who organise a political party with the sole aim of imposing their beliefs on everyone.

In the past I’ve retained people in my circle who are more to the right of the political spectrum than me. I know where I stand, and I felt the need to hear other points of view, to hear what they other side was thinking. But I was disappointed. To a man, and indeed woman, these people I tried to interact with turned out to be unpleasant and reactionary. Someone would post an anti-Islam picture on Facebook, and I would try and explain why I thought it was wrong. My arguments fell on deaf ears. Islam is bad, that is it, like this was some kind of fact of nature. I had folks from the right making snide and rude remarks when Joan Kirner – a lovely woman I met briefly once – passed away last year. They didn’t say “Oh how sad”, rather there was mocking of her polka-dot dresses. I disliked Fraser, despite his attempts later in life to resurrect his image. Or, it would seem, he stayed the small-l Liberal he’d always been and the Liberal party lurched to the right. Either way, when he died I was sad. No matter how old and no matter their politics, it’s sad when someone passes. But no such sympathy for Kirner or Gough from these supposed adults I knew. And the pattern repeats itself. I had a heated discussion on Twitter just before the election over asylum seekers. A women who was actively proud of her migrant background was perfectly happy that we are locking up children who had dared to try and enter the country. The hypocrisy was extraordinary, but she couldn’t see it.

I like to think the things I believe are based in fact. I like to think that my beliefs are rational and that I can defend them. And, importantly, if someone can show me clearly that I’m wrong, I’m willing to change. If someone can provided clear evidence that the world is not warming, I’ll change my stance. Trouble is the folks I engage with on this that subject can’t and don’t create a decent argument. All one hears is “are you shouldn’t believe anything you read in that newspaper” or “Ah it’s clearly all a conspiracy”. I once got called a Socialist on Twitter, like that was some kind of insult. I was troubled – I quite readily self-identify as a socialist. Or at least someone who doesn’t have a “I got mine, fuck you” attitude. I like to think there are conservatives out there who can muster an argument and defend their point, but I have yet to meet one.

Meanwhile, at the time of writing, the election counting goes on. Meanwhile the current prime minister is sure he can form some kind of government. The seat I put the most effort into, Batman, still hangs in the balance. And the UK has no government to speak of, and some orange-coloured freak in the United States is making disturbing stabs at the presidency. All the while the planet keeps warming, the reef keeps dying, the children and babies are still in an off-shore prison camp, and people continue to be maimed in Iraq a decade after it was “liberated”. It would be so much easier to not care. To just cover one’s ears and go “La la la”. Or the suburban equivalent, sitting on the couch with a beer watching some kind of competitive cooking show…

Election Day was a depressing experience

For political junkies like myself, election day is supposed to be something of a highlight. Actually living through a very long election campaign when you’ve made up your mind some years ago how you’re going to vote is not that much of a spectator sport. I just wanted it to end and for there to be a result – hopefully one that I liked.

But the actual process on election day was depressing, not just because I missed out entirely on a Democracy Sausage. For the first time ever I was handing out how-to-vote cards for a party other than the ALP. Following my decision to leave the party after more than twenty years as a member, I threw my lot in with the Greens. Particularly in the seat of Batman because of a particular dislike of the sitting member, David Feeney, a waste of oxygen from the ALP who was gifted the seat after being dumped from the senate. And a particular liking for for Greens candidate Alex Bhathal.

I was also roped into helping in the seat of Scullin, where I now live. And which is a very safe Labor seat. So for three hours in the afternoon I was handing out how to vote cards at a high school in Lalor. On the plus side, it was a fantastically diverse group of people there voting – I handed fliers to Kooris, folks of African extraction, retired migrants of a Mediterranean background, women in Hijabs, including a large number of feisty young woman, and a few in Niqabs. Lots of folks coming from works in the paint-cover clothes.

But then there was a fair percentage of folks who were completely confused by the whole process. Some were first time voters, tall teens who had never done this before. But a fair number were just perplexed, and were asking us, the how-to-vote folks how to fill in the ballot papers. I’ve always thought the voting process here in Australia was relatively straightforward, consistent between elections and explained a fair bit. But apparently not… We found ourselves explaining the two ballot papers, about how you had to number all the boxes on the green ballot, and who all the parties were. People were saying they’d only ever heard of Labor and Liberal, and were perplexed by all the other parties. I’m not sure what the percentage of informal votes where at the booth, but I suspect it was quite high. Which makes me sad that some folks didn’t get to express their preference.

The more depressing event was the two other how-to-vote folks there whom I ended up having a conversation with. The first was a chap from the ALP, who quite readily told me he was a member of the Labor right. The thing that impressed him the most while we were there was a Mercedes that pulled up. He was telling me how much it was worth. A lot, it would seem, the kind of money I would use if I had to have, say, half a dozen sponsor children.

Then I got into a heated discussion with a women from something called the Australian Christian Party. Her sole concern was her strenuous opposition to the Safe Schools Program. She told me an extraordinary stream of misunderstandings and lies about same-sex couples in general and the Safe Schools program. According to her one of the main creators of the program was a pedophile enabler. I asked her what on earth she was talking about, and she quoted me something from a paper this person had published. To me it sounded like the gist was “Teenagers who are same sex attracted, queer etc. need same-sex adult role models” – a perfectly obvious thing to say. But no, according to this mob that meant they were meant to sleep with adults. Other aspects of the program that made her angry: Role playing as Gay or Lesbians as a learning experience – this was teaching kids it was normal to be that way and no doubt converting them. That being LGBTI was being normalised, while claiming at the same time that there was nothing wrong with being gay so long as she could prevent anyone under twenty from ever hearing about it ever. Because of course no teen has ever been bullied for being out.

As you can imagine, she was vehemently opposed to same-sex marriage. Because, I kid you now, marriage is defined by god and science! She could not explain what that meant. I told that she was denigrating the relationships of some of my good friends, and that marriage was a social construct – which she didn’t understand.

And then the guy from the ALP chipped in that he too opposed same-sex marriage. Apparently all the religions he was familiar with opposed it. Which I would have disputed but I run out of breath and time. It seems words in a two thousand year old book, and indeed a 1300 year old book hold more import than the diversity of the modern world. Here I was reminded again why I left that political party… Which was confirmed firmly when I discovered they’d preferenced Derryn Hinch in the senate!!

I thought of my friends who are in same-sex relationships, or who a cross-dressing or indeed just not gender-bound. And I felt sorry for them, if this is the kind of frankly irrational opposition they face. I don’t have a problem with people being conservative, but I have a strong objection to people holding completely incoherent views that have no solid basis. I’m going to teach my kid how normal this stuff is in a fairly simple way – in fact I largely won’t need to, since he’ll be surrounded by gay and lesbian couples.

I upped sticks from that booth and headed over to a primary school in the seat of Batman. Happily the mood was different there. I stayed after the polls closed to scrutineer. In this seat the contest was been the Green, my candidate, Alex, the ALP and in distant third at Liberal candidate. There as a total of eleven candidates, but in the booth I was at some of them attracted all of eight to twenty five votes each.

They sort the lower house ballots into piles by first preference votes. There was three notably piles – ALP, Green and Liberal. And one other pile of note – the informal votes. This grew depressingly large. I watched the ballots that went into that pile. A number of them were people who clearly didn’t give a stuff, they’d left the ballot blank or crossed the whole thing out. But a large number of them really had tried, but they’d messed it up. Putting a tick or a cross in one box. Numbering only six of the eleven boxes, probably confused by the new Senate voting rules. The informal pile grew till it numbered nearly 10% of the total votes cast. Which depressed the hell out of me. Batman is likely to be decided by a margin of less than 1%, and here was a huge number of people who wanted to vote a certain way and failed.

The next step of the process is to distribute preferences. The three piles were roughly 1000 votes for the ALP, 450 for the Greens and 415 for the Liberals. The Libs were distributed between Green and ALP, because across the whole seat the contest would be between the other two parties. And so I got to watch still more votes head towards the ALP… The Liberal how to vote card had preferenced the ALP tenth and the Greens eleventh. So some 70% of them went in the ALP pile. There I was watching a party I intensely dislike deliberately sabotaging the chances of a party they intensely dislike. I know it’s not sabotage but it certainly felt that they hated the Greens more than they hated their traditional rivals the ALP.

I eventually headed home, despondent, and watched the results come in on ABC. And here I was bummed out yet again. I’ve spent that last three years watching in horror as the conservative government in Canberra has demonized minorities for their own gain, in the process enabling a number of racists to rear their ugly heads. And trying to destroy fabled institutions like Medicare and the ABC and the union movement, repealing working carbon reduction legislation, lying about their being a refugee crisis, nobbling the NBN and… Well, it felt to me like every day there was something new they were doing to get angry about. And here they were on election night in with a fighting chance. Rather than being dumped out office by an outraged nation, there they were sitting almost neck-and-neck with the opposition. Rather than having a prime minster having to make a humiliating speech of defeat, we had smug blue-tie wearing Liberals saying they were hoping to form government again in a few days. I’m not sure what the combination of rage and despair is called but that is what I felt. And to find that the senate is going to be worse than the last term. Pauline Hansen, the prototype racist nutjob is back. Derryn Hinch, a loud angry white man may be in there. Jackie Lambie will be back possibly with a friend. The next three years are going to be grotesque.

I had a fitful nights sleep. I’m going to be spending the next few days refreshing the AEC’s website for results.