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…

Leaving the ALP

This is the letter I’ve just send to Bill Shorten, along with my membership card.

Dear Mr Shorten,

I am a long time member of the Australian Labor Party, having joined as a young man over two decades ago. I’ve been on branch committees, I’ve met many members of parliament and I come from several generations of rusted-on Labor voters.

However, of late I have found myself questioning my membership, and questioning the behaviour of the party itself. And I’m afraid the time has come for me to leave.

It has been a long time coming. I gritted my teeth when the last Labor government continued to invest in the dramatically late and extraordinarily over-budget F-35 fighter jet that the Howard government decided on for political reasons. I know this because I worked at the Defence Science and Technology Organisation at the time.

I was very angry when our last-but-one Labor prime minister refused to support marriage equality. Thus demeaning the relationships of many of my friends.

And I was incensed when I got to see firsthand the workings of the factional machine during the preselection for Batman on the retirement of Martin Fergusson (and don’t get me started on him!). I watched not one but two amazing local women put their hands up for the seat. Either of them would have been a great addition to the parliament and very representative of the local area. But no, a factional hack was parachuted in, on the votes of the many stacked branches in that FEA. I’ve seen the membership lists, there is no way there are that many Labor members with the same address and the same surnames in that area. So once again a very safe Labor seat is used as a token and a reward in a game that has nothing to do with the desires of the local people and the genuine local members.

I’ve watched with dismay as you and your fellow ministers have wholehearted gone along with this dreadful administration’s fear mongering about national security. Based on the desire to not be seen to be “weak”, you and the federal party have chipped away at our rights and our privacy. And tacitly endorsed the demonising of Australia’s peaceful Muslim community. You can wish everyone a happy Ramadan every year, but it doesn’t hide how this group are being treated as outsiders and as dangerous.

But for me the straw that broke the camel’s back has been refugee policy. Howard found he could win votes from those otherwise inclined to vote for One Nation by declaring those desperate refugees to be “illegal”. I can still hear him intoning, or dog whistling, “We will decide who will come into this country and under what circumstances.”

And what do I find from the party I belong to? A compassionate treatment of asylum seekers? Attempts to build regional consensus about how best to help these people? No. Far from it.

I tried to look away when Keating introduced mandatory detention. I gritted my teeth when Gillard created the Nauru and Manis Island detention centres. No, let’s be honest, they’re prison camps. And I was furious when Rudd then excluded the whole of Australia from the migration zone.

The way these people have been treated is not just immoral and cruel, it’s moved into violations of international law.

So imagine my disgust when I found that one of the worst policies of this current federal Coalition government, headed by a man capable only of parroting the same three word slogans over and over, was being adopted by the ALP at the most recent national conference. I’m talking of course of turning back the boats. Or, to describe it more accurately, sending people away to die elsewhere.

I shouldn’t need to tell you that seeking asylum is not illegal, it is a basic human right. It shouldn’t need stating that this nation does not have a refugee crisis by any measure – more people cross the Mediterranean in a day than turn up here in a year. And let’s look at Syria’s neighbours, who have absorbed four million people, the population of Sydney, as refugees in the last few years.

So it is with great disappointment that I return my membership card. The ALP could have drawn a line and said enough is enough, we will accept these people into our community, we will work with Indonesia and our other neighbours to, say, create a regional processing centre where we can assist these desperate people without them having to risk their lives in unseaworthy boats. The ALP could have made far better use of the huge amounts of money being wasted to imprison small numbers of people in another nation.

You may form a government which reduces unemployment to record low levels. But you will still be locking up babies in mouldy tents.

You may preside over an administration that introduces a working carbon trading scheme which reduces our huge greenhouse footprint. But you will still be putting refugee women in serious danger of rape and assault, and knowingly putting children in danger of being abused.

You may undo some of the extraordinary unprincipled things this current government has done, a list far too long to make here. But we still won’t know who killed Reza Barati, nor will you be able to guarantee the safety and appropriate medical treatment of anyone on the island camps.

You may renew the place of unions in our society, but you will still be condemning already traumatised people to a dangerous limbo, whilst our bureaucracy drag its feet for years, processing asylum claims. Or simply condemning them to some other dangerous part of the world by towing back the boats.

This nation of ours is paradise. It is safe and prosperous, the envy of the world. And we used to be a compassionate nation. We resettled thousands of refugees from Vietnam, who have gone on to great things in their adopted nation. Now, we seem content to use innocent men, women and especially children to political ends, to win a couple of votes in Western Sydney and far north Queensland. The ALP used to be a landmark of compassion, a bulwark against the ruthlessness of the right. But no longer.

Despite the fact that there are good people in the party – Tanya Plibersek, Lindsay Tanner, Daniel Andrews, Jenny Mikakos, Chris Couzens, the late and sorely missed Joan Kirner – I find it is time for me to leave.

I don’t expect to get anything other than a form reply to this letter. In fact, I doubt you’ll read it at all. But know this, despite my utter disgust with the Abbott government, I will vote for other parties and actively campaign against you and your party whilst these immoral and illegal refugee policies are in place.

P.S. I wrote this before the decision to admit an extra twelve thousand refugees from Syria was made. While commendable, this action throws into sharp contrast the extraordinary hypocrisy of locking up thousands of other, equally worthy refugees in off shore camps. This double standard must cause you headaches from the cognitive dissonance.