Have we had enough yet?

lady justice

Look. LNP voters.I know we haven’t always seen eye to eye, but, I get it. I really do. I understand how, if you see national economies as analogous to household finances, you might have been tremendously concerned about a “debt and deficit disaster”. I can empathise with your feelings of distress about drowned asylum seekers and can certainly see that a cast-iron promise to stop the boats might have seemed seductive as you approached the ballot box. Furthermore, I absolutely agree that the characterisation of the former Labor government as one which had simply lost its way is ridiculously inadequate and that their failure to stabilise their leadership and address their other internal problems had rendered them fairly well unelectable. I get all that, I really do. I understand why you felt you had to put a number 1 in the box belonging to  your local LNP candidate. But seriously, have we all had enough now?

Those of us further to the political left may well remember the despair we felt on the evening of the 7th September 2013, as the news rolled in that the coalition had won the election and an absolute majority in the lower house. Our hard-won carbon pricing scheme to be repealed. Further erosion of the human rights of asylum seekers. Gonski under threat. Massive cuts to the public service. With hindsight, it seems that we should have been dancing a wild jig under the waxing moon to think that these were the worst things that could happen.  A mere twenty months later, and it seems that Mr Abbott and his cabinet full of henchmen and two henchwomen are doing their best to adulterate the foundations of our democracy.

The rule of law, in essence, means that all people are accountable to the law, and no-one is above it. Not the king, back in the day, and not the government executive today. It’s enshrined in our constitution and it exists to protect us from the exercise of absolute power without judicial oversight. It differentiates us from countries like Zimbabwe, Rwanda, North Korea, and China. Important, right? Something that everyone in our great democracy can agree on, regardless of where you are on the political spectrum? Yet, three weeks ago, an article in the Sydney Morning Herald carried a quote from an unnamed minister that we were “lucky to have half a dozen ministers who still care about the rule of law.” What the hell, Australia? How could we, one of the most stable and functional democracies in the world, be in a situation where only half a dozen of the people responsible for government policy could be bothered even giving lip service to one of the most fundamental values of our society? Peter Dutton, the Minister for Immigration, in one of the more terrifying pronouncements by a minister in recent times, has said “The government’s not going to have the courts second-guessing ministerial decisions.” In other words, this government has decided that it, alone of all the governments since Federation, and all the global governments which are formed on the basis of the Westminster system, is not answerable to the law. It’s profoundly terrifying, dear voter, don’t you agree?

Maybe I’m over-reacting, you’ll say. Ministers shoot their mouths off all the time. Unprepared remarks, and all that. He didn’t mean it. It’s not like the government are taking away people’s rights to have migration decisions reviewed by courts. Or making it illegal to talk about things witnessed in detention centres. Or simply changing the law when a High Court decision goes against them. Or launching character attacks on statutory office holders who attempt to hold them to account. Oh wait. Yes, they actually are.

The irony of the fact that all of these encroaches on our democratic freedom are being done in the name of protecting our democratic freedom is only magnified by the fact that they are being perpetrated by the party for whom individual freedom is supposedly paramount. As their matriarchal Speaker, Bronwyn Bishop, said on Q&A last week, the first role of government is to protect its people. But if we let the rule of law slide, who is to protect us from them?


Fading Hope


I just checked the news sites for the hundredth time today, hoping to see a full-page headline “11th hour reprieve!” As the day has progressed and no such headline has appeared, hope has trickled from me and left a vice-like pain in my heart that is equal parts rage, revulsion, and despair. Yet there is a part of me that still can’t quite believe that a modern government would take people out to a field in the dead of night and shoot them dead. In that naive part of me, hope still lives.

When the subject came up at a family gathering over the weekend, someone asked me contemptuously where I was for the “last one”, as if to suggest that I am a victim of contagious faux-outrage, jumping on the compassion band-wagon for the left-wing issue du jour. Not wanting to encourage my family sport of lefty-baiting, I changed the subject. But actually, when I was eight years old, I refused to enter the Dubbo Gaol “tourist attraction” because people had been hung there. When Malaysia hung Kevin Barlow and Brian Chambers, I was ten years old, but my horror that a government could act in such a brutal way has stayed with me until today. When Singapore hung Van Nguyen, I was sitting alone in a bar at Central Station, trying to suppress audible gasping sobs.

Bob Hawke called the execution of Barlow and Chambers “barbaric”, which reportedly hurt the feelings of some Malaysian leaders. He was right. The death sentence is barbaric. It is a sign of a reductionist, simplistic view of the world in which “an eye for an eye” overrides any more nuanced or evidence-based goals of a justice system, such as rehabilitation or deterrence. It denies the possibility of redemption and necessarily denies the humanity of those with whom it deals.

The death sentence is always barbaric, but it is particularly so in the cases of the nine people who are due to have their bodies ripped into by bullets tonight. It is barbaric because it is the result of a system whose function is dependent on the caprices of whoever happens to be President. It is barbaric because due process has been consistently denied in favour of political expediency. It is barbaric because keeping someone in gaol for a decade, in a constant cycle of hope and despair, ignoring their obvious rehabilitation, and then executing them, is the very definition of cruel and unusual punishment, not only for them, but for the people who love them. It is barbaric because no modern government should have the right to take life, let alone a government whose judiciary is profoundly unjust and manifestly corrupt. And it’s barbaric because even that most bloodthirsty of nations, the United States, occasionally makes some effort at pretence of providing a relatively painless and humane death for those they execute.

I hope I wake tomorrow to find that there’s been an intervention by the United Nations and that the nine are still alive. But my hope is slim. A part of me is starting to accept that Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran will die tonight, along with their mentally ill, probably innocent and equally human compatriots. They will die, suddenly or slowly, but brutally, in a field in the dark. There will be no diplomatic consequences for Indonesia. The world will turn, the news cycle will move on. The executioners will try to resolve their trauma and the families will try to heal theirs. Australians will still flood into Bali in their thousands. But I will not. I know my own personal boycott of Indonesia will make no difference. But I will stand for mercy.

Why is the world so sad?

Before last Tuesday, I didn’t know who Phillip Hughes  was. I had never seen his reportedly unique batting style, witnessed his apparently dogged determination and good grace, nor experienced his renowned sense of humour. I wouldn’t have recognised a photo of him. If asked to name as many Australian test cricketers as I could, I would have started with Allan Border and pulled up short at the Waugh brothers.  Clearly, in spite of having been best and fairest for the 1988 season in the Molong Under 12’s, I am not a cricket fan. Yet when I saw the report that Phillip Hughes  had died, the tears were immediate and my sadly pristine cricket bat was one of hundreds of thousands that graced front doors across the country and around the world. Judging by the avalanche of grief and commentary on social and traditional media, my response is not unique. The many articles published exploring  the reasons for this almost unprecedented collective grief have included explanations such as  the simple fact that he was, by all accounts, a remarkable human, that his death “held up a mirror” to us, like Diana’s did, or that it served as a symbol of a greater loss borne by us all. None of these propositions feel true to me.

My initial thoughts around Phillip’s death were centred on the personal. Newly mother of a son, I keenly felt the horror of the idea that you could raise a boy safely from a baby to a man, that your  worries about him falling off a high thing or chasing a ball in front of a truck, wrapping his car around a tree or being king hit in the Cross, had all proved groundless. That he hadn’t chosen Formula One racing, BASE jumping or even rugby as his sport of choice, as had the sons of so many mothers who spend their weekends with their hearts in their mouths as their boys risk life and limb. No, he’d chosen cricket, that sport so genteel that it’s very name has become a synonym for good manners, so orderly that the players take a break for tea. And then, just when she should have been able to exhale, and maybe indulge a quiet self-congratulatory thought about what an outstanding man she’d raised, the unspeakable happens. My early tears were for Phillip Hughes’s mother.

As the week went on and the storm of grief swept the nation and the world, my thoughts turned more toward the manner of his passing. There is something gladiatorial about cricket, in spite of its civility. The long, lonely walk to the crease. The circular arena. A mental and physical battle which seems curiously an individual pursuit, teammates notwithstanding. To die in such a manner, whilst we all were watching, elicits a base emotional response of grief and respect that is palely reminiscent of that which the Romans must have expressed on the death of a brave warrior at the Colosseum. The televised funeral, attended by leaders bipartisan in their grief, and the slow procession through the streets of Macksville, were entirely appropriate for such a fallen hero.

Although it has been difficult to comprehend the magnitude of mourning, there is in fact some evidence that suggests an explanation. A Lancet article from 2005 that applied findings from individual grief and loss studies to global disasters in an attempt to explain widespread vicarious trauma identified several risk factors. They included global visibility, sudden, random, and unanticipated death, and identification with the victims. The authors wrote that “the very nature of these dramatic events disrupts our collective sense of stability and predictability, resulting in what some have described as a “shattering of the assumptive world.” That sounds very much like what happened to us this week.

Vale Phillip Hughes.Par2448129