Australia


Who doesn’t want to be this guy?!

Trigger warning: Long rant; gender and racial theory; I may use the qualifier “cis-” in a non-ironic way[1]; Since saying “male genitalia” or “female genitalia” is apparently bad, I may use the words “cunt” and “cock” to refer to the things they refer to; Aussie pride; excessive footnotes[2]; dead naming of dead dudes[3]; anti-Americanism; as always, sex positivity, along with a healthy dose of trans positivity (I hope, though maybe 800 people will judge me a bastard) and my usual disdain for radical feminism; insufficient or excessive trigger warnings

TLDR: WTF is going on with feminist philosophy?! Also, if you think that transgender people are serious and real and should be given full rights and respect, you probably also need to accept that transracialism is cool; but unless you’re American you probably already did, without even thinking that it was A Thing.

I just discovered a horrific conflagration overtaking the world of feminist philosophy, which has got me thinking about a concept that I didn’t even really know existed, but which is apparently A Thing: Transracialism. Transracialism is the practice of people of one race adopting the identity of another and living that identity even if they hadn’t been born into or raised with that identity, so superficially it has this transition process in common with being transgender. I’ve obviously been out of touch with left wing radical social ideals for a while, because I didn’t know that transracialism was A Thing, and that it is Bad while being transgender[4] is Good. In this post I want to talk about transracialism and the stultifying consequence of Americans hogging the debate about sex and race, and also about the disastrous state of modern leftist discourse[5] about so many things.

The controversy concerns an interesting paper in the philosophy journal Hypatia, discussing some of the logical consequences of accepting transgender as a real and serious issue[6]. The article, In Defense of Transracialism, examined the similarities between transitioning to a new gender and transitioning to a new race, and argued that logically if you accept one you really run onto rocky ground if you don’t accept the other. For case studies (and not, apparently, as the fundamental logical basis of the argument) the paper presented the case of Caitlyn Jenner as a transgender, and Rachel Dolezal as a transracial person (“transracer”?) As we know, Jenner got widespread public acceptance for her decision, while Dolezal received widespread public scorn. The article argues in what, to me at least, appears to be a quite tightly reasoned and accessible style, that it’s hard logically to accept one and reject the other, and maybe that means transracialism is actually okay.

The paper was published in March but recently a bunch of Associate Editors connected to the journal published an open letter demanding that the paper be retracted because its publication caused many “harms” to transgender people, and because it was academically poor. The outline of the case, and a solid takedown of the public letter, can be read at this New York Magazine post. It should be noted that the author of the paper is a non-tenured Assistant Professor, a woman, who is therefore quite vulnerable in a highly competitive field dominated by men, and that some of the signatories to the open letter were on the author’s dissertation assessment committee, which makes their signing the letter an extremely vicious act of treachery, from an academic standpoint. For more background on the viciousness of the letter and its implications for the author’s career and for the concept of academic freedom, see Leiter Reports, a well known philosophy blog (e.g. here) or the Daily Nous (e.g. here). It appears that the author has a strong case for defamation, and that many of the leading lights of feminist philosophy have really made themselves look very bad in this affair. (In case you haven’t gathered, I am fully supportive of the author’s right to publish this article and I think the open letter, demand for retraction, and pile-on by senior academics to an Assistant Professor near the beginning of her career is a vicious over-reaction of which they should all be deeply ashamed).

Beyond the obvious bullying and the ridiculous grandstanding and academic dishonesty involved in this attack on the author[7], I am disappointed in this whole issue because it is such a clear example of how Americans can dominate feminist (and broader social justice) debate in a really toxic way. I’ve discussed this before in regards to the issue of sex work and radical feminism, and I think it needs to be said again and again: American influence on left wing social debates is toxic, and needs to be contained. Just look at the list of signatories to this attack on this junior academic – they’re almost all American, and this is yet another example of how America’s conservatism, it’s religious puritanism, its lust for power, and its distorted republican politics, combined with its huge cultural output, is a negative influence on left wing politics globally.

I’m also really interested in this paper because I think it shows not just that transracialism may actually be an okay idea, but when I thought about the implications, I realized that I think most people on the planet already accept transracialism, and if Rachel Dolezal had occurred in any other country we would probably just have shrugged and got on with our lives. So in this post I’d like to discuss what Americans can learn from other countries’ approach to race.

Transracialism in Australia

Just to clarify, I was born in New Zealand to British parents and moved to Australia aged 13, taking Australian citizenship when I was 21. My grandfather was a Spanish war hero, a proud soldier in the losing side of the civil war and a man who spent nine years fighting fascism, and I was raised by him and my (deeply racist, white) British grandmother for two years as a child. So actually I’m a quarter Spanish, and so in theory I could have been raised Spanish but wasn’t, and don’t know anything about my birth race, which at various times in history has been defined as a separate race or just a culture. This makes me probably really normal in Australia, because Australia is a nation of immigrants making a new life in a land swept clean by genocide. It’s my guess that if you grew up in Australia you know a lot of mixed-race people, and if you paid any attention to the discussion of the Stolen Generations in the 2000s you’re aware that race is a very contested and contestable concept, and that Australian government policy has always assumed that race is a mutable concept subsidiary to culture. I think it’s likely that if you grew up in Australia you will know at least one of the following stereotypes:

  • An Aboriginal person who doesn’t “look” Aboriginal, and who maybe has no connection to their Aboriginal culture; you may even not be sure if they are Aboriginal, suspect they are but don’t know how to ask
  • A young Asian Australian who looks completely Asian, acts in ways that are stereotypically associated with Asian Australians (e.g. the guy holds his girlfriends bag for her, the girl is a complete flake in a very Asian Australian way) but is in every other way completely and utterly unconnected from their Asian heritage and is thoroughly through-and-through “whitebread” Australian
  • A completely Australian guy who speaks fluent Greek and goes back to Greece to “be with his family” every year
  • A person who has discovered that they have an ethnic heritage of some kind and is trying to recover that heritage in some way that might inform them about their own past, even though they are effectively completely disconnected from it, but they are clearly serious about rediscovering their heritage and all their friends and family support this apparent madness
  • A black or dark-skinned Australian who literally knows nothing about the culture of whatever race gave them their skin colour

If you’re a little older, like me, or know a wide range of older Australians, you may also have encountered an Aboriginal Australian who was stolen from their family at an early age and raised white but is on a bittersweet quest to recover the heritage they never had – and may have found that that heritage was extinguished before they could be led back to it. When I was 20 I was paid to provide maths tutoring to a bunch of 50-something women who were training to be Aboriginal Teaching Assistants – a kind of auxiliary teacher who will assist fully qualified teachers in remote Aboriginal communities – and some of them couldn’t even do fractions. When I asked how they missed such an early stage of education they told me they were taken to “the mission” when they were young, and didn’t get a proper education. I was young and this kind of issue wasn’t discussed then but now I understand that they were from the Stolen Generation, and were at various stages of understanding of their own racial heritage. They were going back to help their community, and recovering their own heritage, not just to settle the question of their own background but also to right wrongs done and change society[8]. These kinds of people are a normal thing in Australian cultural life. But can you look at that list of archetypes and say they aren’t all in their own way transracial? Indeed the underlying philosophy of the Stolen Generations was that you can eliminate racial traits of Aboriginality in half-Aboriginal people simply by raising them white; and the underlying principle of Multiculturalism is that culture transcends race, and we can all get along. Also in Australia there is a lot of tacit recognition of the problems second and third generation migrant children go through as they “transition” from the cultural heritage of their parents to that of their born country, where although racially they’re distinct from the majority they are clearly culturally more similar to the majority than to their parents. In the 1990s this was happening with Greek and Italian kids, in the 2000s with Vietnamese kids, and in the 2010s with Lebanese kids. Everyone in Australia knows that this happens, which surely means that everyone in Australia sees transracialism as a common pattern of multiculturalism.

Since I’ve moved to Japan I’ve seen this confirmed in many ways, but the best I can think of is a child I knew in a rural country town. His parents were both white New Zealanders but he had been brought to Japan at the age of 3 and raised in rural Japan, and when I met him at 17 he was thoroughly and completely Japanese. He didn’t speak English, communicating with his parents in a mixture of Japanese, really really bad English, and typical adolescent boy grunts. He hadn’t experienced much racism in Japan and had been sheltered in a very nice and welcoming rural environment, had a good group of close Japanese friends, communicated in the (ridiculously incomprehensible) local dialect, and was a typical cloistered Japanese boy. But he was also a big, white lump in his Japanese world, standing out like dogs balls. His race was irrelevant to his cultural background, except that he knew he was “white” and that therefore every Japanese person who ever meets him will engage in a boring conversation about why he is so. Fucking. Japanese. How is this not transracialism? Sure, a lot of transracial experience is not a choice per se, but whether it is a choice is surely irrelevant to the fact that it is completely possible and that for some of us – probably only a small proportion – changing “race” is a choice we feel compelled to make. I.e. not a choice. Rachel Dolezal might be a bad example, but whatever her motives might be, is her ability to do it under question? I would suggest that from an average Australian perspective, it is a completely ordinary concept. The only thing at issue is “why?” But since most well-meaning people don’t impugn the motives of strangers, who gives a fuck?

Race is a social construct

The possibility of transracialism becomes even clearer when you recognize that race is a social construct. This doesn’t mean race doesn’t exist – it clearly does – but that it is an invention of humanity structured around clear physical lines, not a real thing. While there is a clear difference between black and white people, there is no boundary at which this difference can be defined, and no genetic markers that clearly distinguish between one and the other. This isn’t some weird fringe idea popular only amongst Black Panthers, but a fundamental plank of modern science, reasonably well accepted at least in the biological sciences and anthropology. When we talk about races what we really are referring to is distinct cultural identities that can be mostly distinguished by noticeable visual cues (e.g. Nigerians are black, and stress the first syllable of every word in a cool way). This also means that race has very little influence on the culture you can actually adopt, which is why although I’m a quarter Spanish I’m completely white, while there are Aboriginal or Maori people who are one quarter Aboriginal but completely wedded to the culture of that quarter.

In comparison, sex is an absolute category that is definable and distinct. It has a chromosomal origin, and multiple definable, distinct characteristics. It is also clear across cultures that men and women tend to be different in many physical and personality characteristics, though these aren’t always the same in every culture and there can be lots of differences between people of a single sex between and within cultures. But sex is a clear, binary concept that, for all its massive cultural baggage, is not independent of its biological underpinnings. This, by the way, is not an idea anathematic to feminism – lots of feminists accept that the sexes are fundamentally different, and although there may be argument about to what extent these differences are biological vs. cultural, there is a large body of feminist work that assumes these differences are real and important.

And yet still people can want to change sex. Really want to change sex! And this phenomenon is common across almost every culture, though it receives higher levels of acceptance in some cultures (e.g. some Asian and Indigenous cultures) than others (e.g. modern USA). It’s also clear that you can’t force someone to change sex the way you can race. You might be able to “breed out the colour” of “half-caste” Aboriginal people by stealing them from their parents and raising them in a white family, but you can’t breed out the pink by forcing a girl to grow up as a boy – she’ll still know that she’s a girl. The same is true of sexuality of course – most people can define their sexuality clearly by the gender of the people they fuck, but we have no evidence that you can change that, no matter how hard you try. We know in fact that down that road lies tragedy. And so most of us take people’s sexuality – and the right to express it freely – very seriously. Yet most of us also accept that the right to change sex, to express a desire to be the opposite sex to our birth sex or even to be a third sex, very seriously as well.

So why not race? It’s way more fluid than gender, it has no biological basis, and we have huge amounts of evidence that people do it by accident all the time. Yet when Rachel Dolezal was outed as white she attracted general derision across the political spectrum; and Trump trades on the Pocahontas slur for Elizabeth Warren, whose sole crime apparently is to have been raised thinking she might have Native American heritage. There’s clearly something wrong with this picture, especially if like me you grew up in a race-fluid environment. Why is it so wrong to be transracial?

The toxic American influence on sex and race debates

Of course in America race is not a simple issue, because of slavery. America has a complex, toxic and quite unique racial environment which makes it very hard for Americans to react reasonably to these debates. Just consider the “politically correct” term for black Americans – African American. How is this not a transracial identity? Africa is neither a country, nor a culture, nor a race. Being “African American” is a completely concocted identity, a race that didn’t exist until the 1970s and the advent of pan-Africanism. Nothing wrong with that per se, obviously, but it leads to strange contortions in which, for example, the previous president[9] was dismissed as not “African American” enough by some of his critics even though his dad was Kenyan. We also see unedifying moments like this, where we discover that one of Dolezal’s trenchant critics was raised in a white household from the age of 2, and has clearly made a conscious choice to be black – but rejects Dolezal’s choice on clearly spurious racial grounds.

I think the problem here is simply that Americans need to come to terms with their own racist history, and simultaneously with their role as centre of empire and cultural hegemon. It’s not just that white Americans are beneficiaries of a long history of slavery, or that a sizable portion of white Americans can’t even yet accept that slavery was really wrong, or that treason in defense of slavery was really bad. It’s also the case that black Americans are simultaneously deprived in their own country but hyper-privileged globally, benefiting from many of the profits of empire just as their white compatriots do. This is why, for example, in response to the water poisoning crisis in Flint, Michigan we heard so much about how this was happening “even in a developed country” – black Americans are used to certain basic things that many of the people in America’s tributary nations don’t get. Similarly, black Americans can talk about pan-Africanism while black Americans are bombing Libyans. This is a complex, messed up problem that Americans have to come to terms with before they preach to the rest of us about transracialism. Combine this with America’s well-established puritanism and religious extremism, and you have a perfect storm of stupid. It makes you wonder why they even bother doing philosophy.

It also makes me think that they don’t really have a proper grip on some of these issues. Instead of talking about their own race issues, I think a lot of American feminists could stand to look around the world and learn from others. Australia has a unique culture of multiculturalism and acceptance that, while far from perfect, offers important lessons on how to negotiate racial conflict. We also have a history of genocide and responding to genocide that is deeply entangled with old fashioned racial theories that still seem to have some influence on both the left and right of American politics. But as an Australian I think we have learnt a lot and grown a lot, both about sex and race, in ways that Americans need to learn from. Instead, however, these American philosophers seem to think that their experience of race is unique and universal. I even recently stumbled across a tweet by a “key” philosopher of transgender issues (American) who claimed that transracialism had never been practiced anywhere except by one person (Rachel Dolezal). What a joke! This shows deep ignorance of broader issues of race and culture and a kind of infantile understanding of what the rest of the world is doing. I bet right now there are huge debates going on in China in Chinese about people faking ethnic minority identity (or vice versa) that no American philosopher of race even knows about, let alone can turn into a lesson for American philosophical dialogue.

I think it’s time Americans learnt some humility. America is a nation of religious extremists with a history of slavery that just elected an orange shitgibbon for president. Some humility would be in order.

And a little less bullying too! So if, like me, you think that this article might have pointed you to a phenomenon that is more common than you think, that you didn’t even know existed, maybe you should read it. And then reconsider whatever passing judgement you might have made of Rachel Dolezal, and ask yourself how easily the media are fooled by ugly narratives, and what that says about their quality.

And then, I guess, be whatever race you want to be!


fn1: Google it!

fn2: Including but not limited to references to Aussie pride

fn3: Until today I didn’t know that this term existed, though I think that I probably tried to avoid doing what it refers to. Google it!

fn4: You’ll note that I am writing “transracialism” but not writing “transgenderism”. This is because apparently the latter term is offensive while the former is not; and this has nothing to say! Nothing at all! About how one of these processes is accepted by those who police our language in the name of social justice, while another is not.

fn5: Add “will non-ironically say ‘discourse'” to the trigger warnings! Too late!? Too bad!

fn6: Because for arbitrary and stupid reasons I can’t say “transgenderism”, every sentence where I want to refer to the process or state of being a person who is transgender is going to involve these slight awkwardnesses of English language. I’m going to stick to the politically correct phrasing here, but I hope that everyone sees how awkward this is, and how telling the acceptability of one -ism but not another -ism is.

fn7: I’m making a decision not to name the author because I suspect that if things go badly for her and the paper is retracted she is going to want her name not to be associated with the paper that she struggled over; I know that my actions won’t make a difference to the google search results, but I choose not to add to them. Nonetheless I think this is work she should be proud of and I hope she doesn’t have to retract or disavow it. Also what kind of budding philosopher wants their name turning up on a disreputable blog like this, associated with fantasy gaming and sex positivity?!

fn8: And they were being taught fractions by an ignorant white dude half their age. Can you imagine the indignity!? But they were very nice to me, and I think I did a good job of the teaching. But teaching fractions is HARD.

fn9: Please come back!

Last week’s Journal of the American Medical Association had an excellent article by Chapman et al giving a robust analysis of the effect of the change in Australia’s gun laws that happened in 1996. These laws (the National Firearms Agreement) were enacted very rapidly after a major mass shooting (the Port Arthur massacre) in which 35 people died. Their major components were banning certain kinds of weapon, and introducing a gun buyback scheme to enable gun owners to hand in their guns and be compensated, provided they did so within an amnesty period. Wikipedia describes the law changes in a short paragraph that shows how wide reaching they were:

The law, which was originally enforced by then-Prime Minister of Australia John Howard, included a number of provisions. For example, it established a temporary firearm buyback program for firearms that where once legal now made illegal, that according to the Council on Foreign Relations bought over 650,000 firearms. This program, which cost $230 million, was paid for by an increase in the country’s taxes. The law also created a national firearm registry, a 28-day waiting period for firearm sales, and tightened firearm licensing rules. The law also required anyone wishing to possess or use a firearm with some exceptions, be over the age of 12. Owners must be at least 18 years of age, have secure storage for their firearms and provide a “genuine reason” for doing so.

The laws have been partially evaluated a few times, were the subject of an excellent John Oliver piece, and have been controversial amongst pro-gun activists for some time, with much debate about whether or not they worked. One big problem with analyzing their impact is that the rate of firearm homicides was already in decline when the laws were enacted, and at the same time the rate of non-firearm suicides began to decline in a sharp turnaround from past trends. This has given a lot of room for people concerned about the laws to argue they had no impact.Chapman et al’s article provides a thorough analysis of all the available data on the laws. The analysis uses nationally-available death and population data from 1979 – 2013, so it can analyze two 17 year periods of data to look for changes in rates. It uses the correct analytical method to handle the low numbers of counts (negative binomial regression), and the models are constructed carefully to enable comparison not just of the changes in deaths that occurred at the time the laws were introduced, but to calculate changes in trends at this point in time, and to test if these trends occurred by chance. They conducted the analyses separately for firearm- and non-firearm suicides and homicides, total homicide deaths and gun homicide deaths with mass shooting-related deaths removed. Their key findings were:

    The rate of decline of firearm homicides accelerated, though this acceleration was not statistically significantThe rate of decline of firearm suicides accelerated, and this change was statistically significantThe increase in non-firearm suicides changed to a decrease, and this change was statistically significant

They conclude that there was no evidence of substitution of suicide methods due to the change in laws. Overall their findings seem to be robust, but actually there is a small flaw of interpretation and modeling in this paper that makes it, in my opinion, a missed opportunity to give a definitive answer to the question of the true effect of these laws.

Several limitations with the paper

The big problem with this paper is its failure to directly compare changes in different rates of death. They fitted separate models for the four kinds of death, when in fact they could have fitted a single model for all four kinds of death, plus time and interactions between the four kinds of death with each other, time and the laws. This model would have been slightly nasty to interpret, but would have the benefit of enabling the reader to identify any additional effect of the law on firearm homicides vs. non-firearm homicides, and firearm suicides vs. non-firearm suicides. Statistically significant terms for these parts would imply that the law had a bigger effect on firearm-related deaths than non-firearm-related deaths. This would also have the advantage of giving the model larger numbers of counts, thus reducing confidence intervals. My suspicion, just looking at the data presented in the paper, is that if this more complex model had been fit the authors would have found that the change in laws affected homicide and non-homicide deaths, and suicide and non-suicide deaths. This probably wouldn’t be as interesting a finding, but it would have been more robust.

The second big problem with the paper is that it doesn’t include a control group. I have previously written a post on this, in which I suggested using New Zealand data as a control group, since NZ is very similar to Australia but didn’t enact gun laws at that time. In that post I found that we would probably need to wait until 2023 to make a definitive conclusion on whether the gun laws prevented mass shootings. I didn’t touch so much on the homicide/suicide analyses but the same rules would apply. By using a control group we can rule out any possible cultural changes that may have happened more broadly at that time.

It’s also worth noting that the study doesn’t adjust for age. As Australia ages we expect to see the rate of homicides decline, since older people don’t shoot each other as much as the crazy young’uns, and this adjustment didn’t happen in the study. Given the conclusion about firearm homicides is primarily one based on trends, and a slowly aging society should see the effect of age through changes in trends, this was a missed opportunity. Similarly, suicide tends to happen in age groups where homicides don’t (above the 30s) and an aging society might be at higher risk of suicide, so adjusting for age might find an even bigger effect of the laws. I think it’s possible that a combination of aging society plus increasing proportions of non-white migrants[1] might explain the sudden cessation in mass shootings, especially if you treat mass shooting as an infectious disease, that is less likely to break out as the period of time between outbreaks increases.

Finally, the study doesn’t appear to have actually analyzed statistically the decline in numbers of mass shootings. Is this because the result was non-significant? It’s a strange omission…

Conclusion

This study provides better evidence than previous studies of the effect of the national firearms agreement on firearms-related deaths in Australia, but it is not conclusive. There is still a possibility that the decline in firearm homicides was non-significant, and that the effect on firearm suicides was coincidental. In the absence of a control group, and without constructing a full interaction model testing differences in trends between suicide methods, it is not possible to definitively conclude that the observed effects were due to the national firearm laws. Also, in the absence of a statistical test of the effect on mass shootings, we also cannot conclude that the national firearms agreement reduced these shootings. Nonetheless, the study provides strong evidence that the laws achieved their intended purpose. A more thorough analysis with proper interaction terms might answer this question definitively, but sadly didn’t happen in this particular paper.


fn1: This is probably a slightly controversial position but I have a suspicion – purely theorizing – that mass shootings start off as an in-group thing, they’re something that the majority population do to themselves. This appears to have historically been the case in the USA, with most shooters being white, but somehow in the last 10 years the disease broke out of this group and into non-white minorities, first Asian and then black Americans. I suspect this is unusual, and requires a long period of regular exposure to shootings by the in-group before it happens. This isn’t meant to say that any particular racial group is more prone to mass shootings than any other, just that it starts in the mainstream group and, while it remains a very rare event, remains there. So as the proportion of the population that this group fills declines, the rate of mass shootings also declines, leading to less and less social contagion both within the in-group and between the in-group and others. The exception to this is the USA, where the easy availability of guns means that there is no brake on the continued high rate of events, and eventually the infection spreads out of its main host[2].

fn2: In case it isn’t clear, I think that mass shootings should be seen as a kind of infectious process, spread by media hype, and have suggested changes in media laws to prevent this.

Today is the 70th anniversary of victory in the Pacific (VP Day), when Japan surrendered to allied forces. For the USA, UK and Australia this marked the end of four years of merciless war; for China it marked the end of about 20 years of colonial aggression on the mainland; and for Korea it represented the end of 35 years of colonization by Japan. For the rest of the Asia-Pacific region the end of the war brought on in many cases a new era of instability as colonial governments collapsed and the independence movements of south and south-east Asia took off. The start of peace for Japan was only the beginning of years of civil war, colonial confrontations and communal violence in the rest of Asia, and in comparison to the slaughter and chaos visited on these countries before and after the war ended, the other allied powers’ experience of the Pacific war was relatively pleasant. Still, Australians have many reasons to mark VP Day as a major event in our history, both on account of the huge loss of life sustained, the cruelty experienced by Australians at the hands of Japanese captors, and the profound political implications for Australia of the collapse of British colonialism in Asia, and the UK’s inability to protect Australia (or even win a single battle against Japan!) Japan’s early, complete and ruthless victories over the supposedly superior army, navy and air force of the UK shook the foundations of the UK’s colonial project and brought on the rapid collapse of not just British but also the Dutch, French and Portuguese colonial project. For Australia that meant a major reorientation of our political outlook, first towards the USA and then (much later) towards Asia.

While the long-term political consequences of world war 1 were a second war in Europe, the holocaust and the cold war, the long-term political consequences of the Pacific war were decolonization, rapid development, and ultimately a long peace and relative stability in all of Asia, presided over initially by US power, then by a resurgent and determinedly non-colonial Japan, and now by the three great industrial powers of China, Korea and Japan – once mortal enemies who now have a shared goal of peace and development in all of Asia. Seventy years after Japan’s colonial ambitions were thoroughly repudiated, at great cost to China and Korea, they share a broad set of goals in the region. These goals are disturbed primarily by only two issues: border disputes that no one is really willing to go to war for, and the issue of Japan’s acceptance of its past crimes. Every VP Day there is renewed controversy about exactly how much Japan admits past wrongdoing, and renewed calls for an apology for past acts, and it was expected that on this day especially the Japanese government might do something special about this.

Unfortunately Japan’s current prime minister is a historical revisionist like no other in a long time, and is playing to a right-wing rump at home that prevents him from properly acknowledging Japan’s guilt. He is exactly the wrong prime minister to be making statements of contrition, but it was him who had to give a speech, widely reported, in which he stated that he did not want Japan to have to continually make new apologies. Seventy years on, he wants to draw a line over the past, and look forward to a world without war. Such lofty ideals might sound better if they were coming from someone who was not intent on denying the truth of the comfort women issue, and who was not trying to reform Japan’s constitution to enable this peace-loving nation to deploy its (considerable!) military in joint self-defense actions.

But putting aside the political background of this particular PM, is he actually wrong? Japan has made many apologies over specific incidents and general wartime aggression and violence, and in particular on the 50th anniversary of the war made an apology with the full backing of the Cabinet (the Murayama statement) that is widely seen as an official apology. This statement has been repeatedly reiterated and referred to in subsequent dealings with the affected nations, and at other VP Day events (including in 2005). Abe did not explicitly reference that statement, but he did implicitly endorse it when he stated that “Such position articulated by the previous cabinets will remain unshakable into the future”. He went on, however, to make clear that he thinks that Japan should stop continually apologizing, while remaining aware of the sins of its past and endeavouring never to repeat them:

In Japan, the postwar generations now exceed eighty per cent of its population. We must not let our children, grandchildren, and even further generations to come, who have nothing to do with that war, be predestined to apologize. Still, even so, we Japanese, across generations, must squarely face the history of the past. We have the responsibility to inherit the past, in all humbleness, and pass it on to the future.

This statement is being taken by some in the media as a repudiation of past apologies and a statement of intent to forget the war, but I don’t think it can be seen that way at all. It’s simply making the obvious point that when a population has apologized, and is no longer connected to the people who did these things, there comes a point where you have to stop expecting remorse to be a key part of how they memorialize those past mistakes. Instead Abe proposes that future efforts to remember the war be focused on better understanding of the events of the past, and stronger efforts to build a global society that does not or cannot seek war to resolve economic or political problems.

As a citizen of a nation that has only recently apologized for past wrongs that were committed recently enough for a large part of the population to be connected with them, I think he raises a strong point. In 2008 the Australian federal government apologized officially to the living Aboriginal people known as the Stolen Generation who had been stolen from their families by commonwealth policy, and also made a broader statement of recognition of guilt for genocide. This apology came after long years of campaigning (in which I as a young Australian was involved) and a broadly-supported reconciliation movement which wanted to see not just an apology but full recognition of Aboriginal people’s history and the history of genocide against them, and proper compensation where proper compensation could be given. This reconciliation movement was tied in with a land rights movement that saw victories and defeats but was built on a fundamental acceptance of the role of white Australia in stealing land from black Australia and benefiting from that theft.

I don’t think at any point that when we were campaigning for that Apology, we ever intended that the government should repeatedly apologize and continually be forced to officially admit its guilt in some public and formalized way, even as it continued to work on development and welfare improvements for Aboriginal Australians. We saw the Apology as a moment to convey acceptance and recognition, and … well, to say sorry. There is discussion about formalizing a national Sorry Day, but this wouldn’t be a day intended to force every PM to continually reiterate these apologies; rather, it would be a day of recognition of the past, with local events intended to revitalize and reauthorize our commitment to working together to make the future better. I think if the official Apology had been proposed as an ongoing, annual ceremony of abject admission of guilt, no one would have supported it and no government would have done it.

There is something about apologies that requires at some point they stop. As a nation we can have ongoing recognition of the past, through e.g. national memorials, national days of commemoration, or whatever; but the requirement that every government reiterate the sorrow of its predecessors for deeds committed (ultimately) after all those involved have passed on (or been found guilty) doesn’t seem to be the right spirit of apology.

In the case of Japan, the entire Asia-Pacific has VP Day in which to remember the events of the past, but that doesn’t mean that every VP Day the Japanese government should craft a new apology and seek forgiveness again for something that happened 70 years ago; rather, a simple reiteration of past statements, the laying of a wreath, perhaps the unveiling of any new local projects (Japan is involved in projects throughout the Asia Pacific, including research projects aimed at better understanding the war itself); surely, after 70 years and multiple apologies, it’s time that everyone recognized that the past is the past, what was done was done, and moving on from that past to make a better future requires that the events of the past not be raked up and made fresh, whether out of anger or sorrow?

The same can be said of Australia’s genocidal past. There are ways still in which Australia hasn’t come to terms with that past, but mostly these are best confronted and expressed not through apologies but through concrete actions: efforts towards the finalization of land rights law and land reform; redoubled efforts to improve Aboriginal health, welfare and employment; and better incorporation of Aboriginal people into Australian political life. Although in many cases the problems that still exist are bound up with racism that needs to be confronted through political action (see, e.g. the recent shameful treatment of Adam Goodes), this political action needs to be expressly practical. This is exactly what happens in Australia now, too, I think – for example, Adam Goodes’ treatment was not tackled by further apologies, but by practical action by the football association and statements of support and respect from other football clubs and their captains.

In my view apologies are a very important part of the process of political reconciliation and healing, but they should not be some kind of constantly-repeated process of formal self-flagellation because, while on an individual level an apology usually involves an explicit admission of personal guilt for a personal act, on a political and national level they do not represent guilt, as most of the people whose representatives are doing the apologizing were not responsible in any way for the crime. Political apologies are an act of recognition and restitution, not an expression of guilt. At some point the apologies need to stop, and life needs to proceed with practical political commitments and goals.

So I think it’s time that Japan stopped apologizing, and the other nations that were affected recognize that Japan is a good neighbour, an exemplary world citizen, and a nation that is genuinely aware of and remorseful about its past crimes, with a real intention never to repeat them. Japan doesn’t deal with its past crimes in a perfect way, and indeed much work still needs to be done on understanding what Japan did (many records were lost), on coming to terms with the comfort women issue, and on dealing with the (frankly ridiculous) Yasukuni Jinja situation[1]. But these are all practical efforts, that will advance future understanding and respect much more than further apologies.

I also think it’s high time that people in (and on occasion the politicians of) the USA and UK stopped criticizing Japan’s “lack of apology” and instead started thinking about doing themselves what Japan and Australia have done: Apologizing for their own crimes. There is a new willingness in India to make demands for recognition of Britain’s colonial crimes, but many British people – including most of their politicians – still cling to the repulsive notion that the colonization of India was an overall plus for its people. The UK, Holland, Spain, France, Belgium and Portugal all owe apologies for severe and extreme crimes committed expressly in the interests of stealing other people’s land. Similarly the US puts a lot of effort into memorializing Vietnam but hasn’t apologized for its murderous war, let alone subsequent adventures that killed a million people, and whose architects are advising Jeb Bush on foreign policy. Indeed, Kissinger and McNamara are still respected in the USA, when they should be in prison. I think it’s time that the world recognized that while the great crimes of the 20th century have been pored over and guilt ascertained and accepted, there are many slightly lesser crimes that go unremarked and unrecognized, and that a mature nation should recognize those crimes. Rather than seeing Japan as a recalcitrant revisionist, Japan should be seen as a model of how to acknowledge and atone for past crimes, that “better” nations like the UK and USA could learn from.

A few other notes on Abe’s apology

Abe’s apology, which can be read here, is extensive and, I think, quite powerful. He talks about how Japan lost its way and went against the trend toward peace that other nations were following, and explicitly blames colonial aggression for its actions in China. He thrice refers to the injury done to women behind the lines, giving a nod to more than just the issue of the comfort women but also to the general evil of rape as a war crime, and explicitly identifies the need to prevent this from happening in future wars. He also has some very powerful thoughts to add on the nobility of China and Korea after the war, when he states that Japan must take to heart

The fact that more than six million Japanese repatriates managed to come home safely after the war from various parts of the Asia-Pacific and became the driving force behind Japan’s postwar reconstruction; the fact that nearly three thousand Japanese children left behind in China were able to grow up there and set foot on the soil of their homeland again; and the fact that former POWs of the United States, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Australia and other nations have visited Japan for many years to continue praying for the souls of the war dead on both sides.

How much emotional struggle must have existed and what great efforts must have been necessary for the Chinese people who underwent all the sufferings of the war and for the former POWs who experienced unbearable sufferings caused by the Japanese military in order for them to be so tolerant nevertheless?

I think this is a powerful statement of respect for how well Japan was treated after the war, and recognition that there is a great willingness on all sides of a conflict to move on from it despite great cruelties committed. I think also the paragraphs near the end of the speech, which start “We must engrave upon our hearts” are also very powerful, showing how Japan and the world can strengthen efforts to make sure that the crimes Japan committed are not possible anywhere in the world in the future.

Also, I note that this apology is a Cabinet Statement so represents official government policy, not just Abe’s personal opinion. I think it’s a good basis to move forward, recognize that Japan did wrong, and accept that apologies should not and cannot continue forever.

Instead of constantly dwelling on a world consumed by war, let’s work on building a world without it.

fn1: I personally think that this problem could be solved best by opening an official national war memorial – Japan currently has none – that explicitly excludes the 14 war criminals, is non-religious, recognizes Japan’s war crimes and war of aggression, includes a memorial to the people killed in other countries by Japan, and has a high quality modern museum that accurately reflects the truth of the war. Then on some nominated day that isn’t VP Day, politicians can officially go there and pay their respects to the dead and officially, without controversy, reflect on what was, ultimately, a great tragedy for the Japanese people.

Getting out of that fridge is hard

Getting out of that fridge is hard

Mad Max: Fury Road is a masterpiece of Australian cinema, that makes the rare achievement of building on its predecessors in the series to bring post-apocalyptic film-making to what must, surely, be its apotheosis. Visually stunning, with a brilliant sound-track, incredible pace, and a simple joy in hedonistic old-school road wars violence that is deeply infectious, this movie immerses you in its insane world from the very beginning and doesn’t let you escape until the credits roll. It is thorough in its vision of a grim, wartorn post-apocalyptic wasteland, unrelenting in pursuit of heady, dizzying action and absolutely frantic. But beneath its simple patina of gorgeous landscapes, sweeping chases and exciting stunts, it is also a movie of many layers, combining an uproarious vision of a freakshow post-apocalyptic death cult with a powerful homage to Australia’s alternative and bush culture, and a subtle nod to an eco-feminist critique of the societies that are driving to their own destruction. This is one of those movies that you can appreciate for its visual splendour and action sequences, but also that you can enjoy for its crazed Aussie clowncar humour, and contemplate afterwards in the light of its ecological and feminist politics. This, in my opinion, is the perfect balance of themes for a post-apocalyptic movie. It doesn’t make the mistake of unrelenting hopelessness that characterizes some movies like The Road; it doesn’t dull you to sleep with the empty spaces and silences of an empty world, like The Last Man on Earth or Legend; and it offers something more uplifting than the empty survivalism or post-human cynicism of much of the zombie survival genre. Through the post-apocalyptic setting it offers both excitement, gore and social critique, all couched in such a spirit of over-the-top, raucous and invigorating fun that surely only a zombie couldn’t help but at least slide into the scene and get that rev-head spirit going.

The introductory scenes of the movie leave us with a bewildering array of visions of craziness and freakish people that are confusing and overwhelming, as the scenes of Max’s capture are played through the tunnels and byways of what looks like a massive underground punk/skinhead garage. It will be some time before we figure out what’s happening to him or why, but before we do we’re given a sumptuous feast of the sick, the freakish and the mad as we watch the elite of the citadel lording it over their filthy crazed masses. This 10 minutes is like Peter Greenaway on speed, without purpose or sense, but then we hit the open road and get a few minutes to start putting it all in place – oh, that‘s why the women are being milked, that‘s why the freaks are running the circus, those women are running away from him! Then the trouble starts again and we’re back into chaos, but with a few sentences of expository dialogue (finally!) and the dawning realization of the trouble Max is in, and all of it set against a backdrop of classic 1990s Aussie sub-cultural monuments: the punk styling, the rev-heads worshipping V8 with their elaborate steering wheels, the skinhead warboys who’re whiter than Aryan and go all chrome and shiny to die on the Fury Road … In a couple of minutes of frantic action we’re shown an ecosystem, the skeleton of an apocalyptic death cult, and an entire aesthetic to go with it. Then the chase starts and we’re still absorbing it as Mad Max is roaring (or, more accurately, being roared) onto the Fury Road, which in this world is basically anywhere wheels can turn. But the freakshow doesn’t subside – just when you think you’ve seen it all, come to terms finally with the internally consistent madness of it all, new craziness pops into the scene, and tears up the desert with more chaos, and then makes sense again. What you see on the trailer – some dude in a harness with a flame-throwing guitar, a gigantic dude with oxygen tanks, that scary dude with the mask – that seems so over the top and stupid, it all makes its own brand of crazy sense before you’re even twenty minutes in, and you haven’t even met the object of all this craziness, or even the worst of it all yet. Then when it’s all said and done and you’re reading the credits and seeing who these people were – the Doof Warrior, Rictus Erectus, the Organic Mechanic, Nuks the Warboy – you realize you still didn’t get all of it because nobody told you their full name but every detail of their names is a homage to Aussie subcultures, especially the doof scene but also punk, hardcore and all the tattered, dreadlocked, bullet-studded chaos of the 1980s and 1990s underground. Here it is, flying out of your cinema screen in one last glorious death rattle of insanity, road-rage and revhead joy.

Beneath this infectious ecstasy of the open road the main characters are laying out an ecofeminist thesis. The basis of the story is a group of women – called the Wives – who are apparently genetically perfect (and very beautiful!) fleeing from their tyrannical husband Imortan Joe, with the help  of his best road warrior, a one-armed woman called Imperator Furiosa (played by Charlize Theron). Joe hopes to have healthy babies by these women, and keeps them locked up for his use until he can get a male heir to rule after he is gone. But they don’t want to be things, so they leave, and his warboys have to chase them. This is a pretty basic feminist plot, made stronger by a couple of narrative devices. First of all, the alleged hero of the show gets fridged at the very beginning – as in literally, nearly – and only gets drawn into the story by accident. He manages to fight his way to Furiosa’s side but his role in the story is just luck, he was meant to be just another thing back at the citadel and it’s pretty clear first, at least, that Furiosa isn’t particularly comfortable with the idea of bringing him along. He’s the passenger for much of the first quarter of this movie, and the chicks are driving the car. Then, these women are not helpless – they are agents of their own destiny, and act with all the tools, strengths and wiles at their disposal to make their getaway. They don’t know how to fight and they aren’t strong (and one is about to give birth) but they don’t let any of that stop them doing all they can to take charge of their situation. These women are also the expositors of the film’s ecofeminist thesis, using their few moments of dialogue (no one in this movie wastes breath speaking!) to drop a few choice eco-feminist koans. The crux of it all comes when one of the Wives is trying to push Warboy Nuks out of the truck, and they are arguing about whether she is one of the citadel’s folk or not. Nuks says that he is not to blame, but she demurs, and yells “Then who killed the world!?” before tossing him overboard. At another point one of the women is credited with calling bullets “anti-seeds”: you plant one and watch something die. These are classic tropes of eco-feminist thought, being delivered by strong women whose presence on the screen is inextricably tied to their femininity and their fertility, and a war being fought to control their powers of birth, that are so precious on this planet that (the implication is) was blighted by men like Imortan Joe. They don’t stand up to expound on a manifesto or to make demands or philosophical claims but every time these girls speak they say something linked to an eco-feminist creed. Even the first time we meet them, one of them is cutting off a chastity belt with teeth built into it, freeing herself of patriarchal sexual shackles, and the perverse vagina dentata fears that the patriarchy brings with them.

I must confess I love it when a good movie works an ideology into its very bones, but does it so well that even though you know it’s there you just get sucked along with it anyway. I have no care for Mal’s simplistic libertarianism in Serenity but I did love watching him righteously defend it; I can’t stand the authoritarian violent message underlying 300, or the way it elided Spartan slave-holding and paedophilia, but I loved watching those men fighting for their worthless cause. When a movie saturates itself with an ideology but does it so well that you either don’t notice or don’t care, or – best of all – everything makes sense in the context of that ideology, that is when you know a movie is well crafted. And Mad Max: Fury Road has carried this off brilliantly, with the rollicking plot and the rollercoaster of stunts and enemies and explosions and madness carrying you all the way to the eco-feminist oasis – and back again.

With this movie I think George Miller has drawn together a few ideas he was playing with in the first three Mad Max movies, but wasn’t quite able to pull off. We see hints of a feminist agenda in Beyond Thunderdome, with the powerful Aunty Entity running the town and trying to use Max as a pawn in her schemes. We see here too the role of oases and lost places as signs of hope, but in Fury Road Miller has been able to better combine them with the narrative of judgment on those who brought the world down that he played with in Mad Max 2. The whole thing is also carried off with a remarkable creative continuity: the names, the punk styles, the language of speech have a certain similarity to them, as do the baroque car designs and the hard scrabble economics of theft and hyper-violent rent-seeking. Even the actors are in some cases the same: Imortan Joe is Toecutter from Mad Max 1. This is a full campaign world Miller has created over the past 30 years, leavening it over time with better production values and now a much stronger environmental message, and maturing some other themes (like the role of power-mongers), but that campaign world has been remarkably consistent across all that time.

For all of these reasons, Mad Max: Fury Road was a movie well worth waiting 30 years for. Later this year Star Wars 7 will come out, and we have to hope that there, too, we will finally see continuity with the original legend after 30 years of lost chances. I am not holding my breath on that, but I can assure you, dear reader(s), that Mad Max: Fury Road is something special, and will redeem this year of cinema – and possibly this decade – no matter what happens at christmas. Watch it, and ride eternal, shiny and chrome!

 

This week 700 asylum seekers drowned when their boat capsized somewhere in the Mediterranean sea; reports suggest that a large number of these poor souls were locked in the hold of the ship and had no chance of escape. A year ago the people on this ship might have been found rescued earlier by the European Union’s large, integrated emergency response program Mare Nostrum, but unfortunately it was defunded and replaced with a much weaker local Italian response under the explicit rhetoric of “deterrent,” pioneered so effectively by Australia. Countries with significant anti-immigrant political parties and communities, most notably the UK and Germany, refused to fund the continuation of a coordinated Mediterranean-wide rescue program on the basis that rescuing asylum seekers at sea encourages people smugglers to simply send more, and the best way to save lives is to refuse to help, so that the people smugglers’ business collapses when their customers realize the risks.

The events of the last week – 400 drowned last week, 700 this week, and it’s only Monday – show how effective that tactic has been. So does the record so far this year, with 30 times the deaths recorded in the equivalent period last year under Mare Nostrum. Record numbers are crossing the Mediterranean, fleeing persecution in Libya and chaos in Syria and Iraq. These people appear not to have got the Home Office memo, and apparently think that any risk is better than staying where they are. The ideology of “pull factors,” based on the assumption that these asylum seekers aren’t really that desperate and are just looking for the best country to settle rather than a place of safety, has been shown to be completely wrong.

Last year, before the end of Mare Nostrum, I wrote that Europe has been presenting evidence against the Australian ideology of reducing “pull” factors. Since I wrote that blog post Mare Nostrum has ended and the flow of refugees has exploded. Either there is no relationship between the border control policies in place at sea, or the defenders of this ideology – if they are being honest – will have to accept that the evidence shows that the only “pull” factor at work here is going in the opposite direction of their claims, and that rescuing asylum seekers at sea is a more effective deterrent than letting them drown. Of course they won’t accept such a conclusion, and will continue to argue that we “encourage” these desperate people by saving them, when all the evidence now shows that their plight is so desperate that they don’t care about our search and rescue plans, they just want to get out. But our political masters don’t care about these people, and indeed why should they when popular columnists refer to them as vermin and cockroaches? So instead mealy-mouthed politicians in Europe try to maintain their ideology of deterrence through callousness, and maintain that they will end the flow of refugees by targeting the people smugglers – rhetoric they have used for years to no effect, probably because they aren’t even bothering to do that. And how can they affect migration policy in North Africa? Libya is a chaotic mess that the last Italians fled from months ago, leaving the people of Libya and especially its most vulnerable stateless displaced to their bloody fate. How do you target people smuggling when you don’t even have an embassy? Europe is powerless to affect events on the ground in Syria, and refugee flows through that part of the world are now so huge that it would be impossible to identify the people smugglers, let alone stop them.

Japan is another example of the emptiness of “pull factor” rhetoric. Even though Japan has only approved a handful of asylum applications in the last decade, numbers of people claiming asylum have increased ten-fold over that time. How can it be that a country which offers zero chance of resettlement is seeing unprecedented application numbers, if asylum policy at the destination is a major determinant of asylum seekers’ choices?

Abandoning people to drown is cheap and politically easy in modern Europe, but it will not deter these people, because they are desperate. It’s time for Europe to recognize that its neighbourhood has gone to hell, and Europe won’t be able to keep ignoring this problem forever, or pretending that it can stand by and let people drown out of simple callousness. If Europe is not willing to invest the time, money and lives in stabilizing Syria and Libya, then it needs to recognize that it has at least a moral responsibility to save the lives of the desperate and stateless when they put to sea. Maybe then Australian politicians will also rethink their cruel and vicious policies towards the stateless. This problem is not going to end anytime soon, but if we keep lurching towards the moral event horizon, our humanity will …

[Warning: Australian politics] I read in the newspapers yesterday that Clive Palmer, mining magnate and funder of the Palmer United Party, is going to sue two former party members for campaign financing he provided to help them get elected. Given how mercurial and weird Palmer is, the news is probably already out of date and he has changed his mind already, and I certainly hope so, because this is a legal case that absolutely should not happen. He is going to try and get back $9 million he spent on getting the two members, Glenn Lazarus and Jackie Lambie, elected on the basis that since he paid for them to get into parliament in his party, they should have stayed in his party.

I know nothing about the law but I am going to make a prediction for this court case on the basis of my understanding of Australian culture and the history of the courts in Australia: this case is guaranteed to fail. Almost no court or jury will find in his favour given the obvious chilling implications for democracy, and the defendants will be able to appeal any loss right up to the High Court. There is absolutely zero chance, in my opinion, that the High Court will find in Palmer’s favour. Even the most conservative imaginable possible array of High Court judges will throw it out in a heartbeat – or rather, in the length of time it takes them to write a dismissive and compelling judgment that will make Clive Palmer very very embarrassed.

At least it would embarrass him if he had any shame, but in case the infamous twerking video didn’t convince you this court case should be the final proof that Palmer has no shame. That he would even conceive of such a case shows how out of touch he is with Australian civic values, how little respect he has for the political process, and how he really views his party – not as a vehicle for political change but as a personal possession (to be clear, I never doubted this – but smarter tycoons might at least try to pretend it weren’t true!) Imagine if the Liberals or Labor could sue a party member every time they jumped ship or split to recover election costs – the effect on party discipline would be very impressive, but the effect on political debate would be terrible. But worse still, imagine if donors could demand repayment of their money if a member jumped ship? And if a donor can demand repayment of election expenses when a member leaves the party, can they not also demand repayment if their legislative goals are not achieved? Currently big corporate and organizational donors give money to a political party on the assumption that it will represent their interests, but not on the assumption that they can get specific legislative goals (though they often do, of course, get these). But if Palmer were to win this case they could conceivably write more specific contracts for their donations, backed up by the implied threat of civil action if they don’t get what they want. I think legal argument is the one place where slippery slope arguments make sense, since a decision sets a precedent for subsequent decisions; in this case, Palmer’s legal efforts could open the door to at least the kind of implied threats that could seriously damage political independence. And some of those donors are big givers – the unions give the ALP millions, and some corporate donations to the Liberals are in the hundreds of thousands. Everyone knows that these donors will withdraw their money in future if the party doesn’t represent them; but the possibility that they could sue for past money would surely terrify the two major parties and make them much, much more careful about toeing the donors’ line.

Plus of course donors wouldn’t have to sue over a specific lost legislative goal – they just wait for a process event (such as a member leaving or being found guilty of a crime of some kind) and sue out of spite. The mere threat to sue in such a case could convince a party to change a policy. It would be disastrous.

These considerations are why I think the High Court would take the case and then decide in favour of the defendants. Whatever one might think of the individual politics of High Court members, none of them are stupid and they are very careful and considerate custodians of the constitution. They just won’t let this happen!

I wonder if it is time Australia considered a law preventing the kind of direct ownership of parties that Palmer has used here. The party is clearly a vehicle for his own personal interests, and given that he is a mining magnate with some big business problems the conflict of interest is obvious. Fortunately for the Australian public he is too stupid to get anything right, but if some Lex Luthor type figure were to come along with the same plan it could be very dangerous. I’m not sure how it could be done in a fair and balanced way, but perhaps consideration needs to be given to a law that prevents individuals from directly setting up a party with their own money. If Palmer wants to influence the political process he should do it the same way every other corporate body does – by networking with politicians, donating money to their party without conditions, and making their case for change through long, careful deliberation through existing social organizations. Buying your own party is crass, and destructive to the political process. I hope the Australian legislature can find a way to stop it in future.

Footnote for non-Australians: Clive Palmer is a mining magnate and “billionaire” who essentially set up his own political party at the last federal election, poured his own money[1] into it and managed to get 6 senators elected. The party is called the “Palmer United Party” but the “United” part is pretty much a footnote of history now since all members bar one have left. Unfortunately these 6 senators basically controlled the balance of power in the senate, which has descended into chaos since the party became disunited[2]. Palmer is sunk in legal problems with business partners and also may be suffering some business challenges (now is not a good time to be an iron ore exporter in Australia) and many people think this party was his attempt to protect his business interests from some bad decisions, and/or to try and force changes through that would benefit his company. For example he refused to pass laws repealing the carbon “tax” until the government agreed to refund money paid since its inception, which would have been a multi-million dollar windfall for his business. It’s hard to see what his real motives were because he is so chaotic and weird, but certainly his party has not been a good thing for Australian legislative processes.

fn1: Well, a Chinese mining company claims it was their money, but that’s currently being negotiated in the courts

fn2: Kind of. It was chaotic before the disunity because Palmer doesn’t know what he wants and changes his mind by the day.

[Warning: Australian politics] Last weekend there was a State election in Australia, with popular Liberal (for overseas readers: “conservative”) premier Mike Baird up against apparently well-liked Labour (for overseas readers: “liberal”) opposition leader Luke Foley. In the context of a deeply detested federal Liberal government, and a recent crushing defeat for the Liberals in Queensland, this election was being carefully watched for warning signs of the imminent demise of the federal Liberal leader, Tony Abbott. Unfortunately for people who like to draw simple conclusions, and by extension the federal labour party, the swing against the federal Liberal party was small (about 2%) but the swing to the Labour party huge (about 9%). It wasn’t enough for Labour to win government but enough to restore them as a political force (they had previously been wiped out in the state due to rampant corruption and general nastiness[1]).

But for those of us who care about the environment and the future of modern, peaceful, developed human society there was an interesting side story, initially ignored by the media. The Greens, Australia’s environmental party, increased their seats in the lower house by 3-4, depending on the result of late counting, and also their vote share. They increased their vote share in the seat they previously held and stole at least two new seats – at least one from the Nationals, a slowly dying party of rural socialism. But in addition to this, they became the second biggest vote winner in a range of seats – most of which are staunchly conservative voters.

What’s going on here?

There is a lot of debate about this coming out in the national media, and most of it is evidence of high panic. The Telegraph (not to be confused with the British high tory newspaper of the same name – the Aussie New South Wales version is toilet paper) has two articles complaining that inner city Greens voters are too rich to care about environmental issues, and rural Greens voters are a bunch of lazy drug users. The latter story gives a detailed run-down of the economics of the electorate that has voted for a Green candidate, suggesting that the Green has been voted in because the electorate is full of unemployed drug users, but doesn’t really pay any attention to the fact that the electorate has been under the control of the Nationals since 1988. Surely if an electorate has been under the control of one party for nearly 30 years, the unemployment and drug use problems of that electorate are the fault of the 30 year party, not the newly-elected one? Perhaps the election of a new candidate is a sign that the locals don’t want this to continue? Perhaps they want change?

Meanwhile there is new evidence that the Greens have replaced Labour as the party of protest in a range of wealthy suburban seats in the north of Sydney. So now we have a situation where National Party seats are being stolen by Greens in rural Australia, and wealthy Liberal voters are switching to the Greens in preference to Labour. This has led the Australian newspaper (owned by American espionage expert Rupert Murdoch) to refer to the Greens as a “cancer on democracy” (as, obviously, any party that wins at the ballot box must be) and is surely leading to a new round of panic in the offices of Labour and the Liberal party.

What’s going on here?

On the surface it looks like Australians are starting to wake up to the environmental problems Australia faces. The new seats appear to have been won on the back of protests against coal seam gas, which is a sign of classic anti-AGW activism with the power to change seats. However, the increase in votes in wealthy areas might possibly be attributable to NIMBYism (“not in my backyard” politics), and this is certainly the line defenders of wealthy privilege are taking – but it could also be because people in those seats are starting to realize that the Liberals as they are currently composed are a threat to humanity.

Traditionally Australian media outlets have avoided talking about Green successes and trumped apparent Green set-backs, and argued that Greens in power would fail. But the federal Green politician is going well electorally, and now the Greens have significantly increased their state representation. This is a sign that people in Australia are starting to realize that the environment is their key concern, and also that the existing “mainstream” political parties do not serve to improve the wealth of the regions. Of course the Liberals could easily combat this by fielding a candidate for prime minister who recognizes the pre-eminence of global warming and understands the genuinely liberal value of local areas controlling local environmental decisions. I don’t necessarily agree with this idea, but it is naturally liberal and it is not happening because the current Liberal party at both federal and state level is essentially a legislative vehicle for developers. If the Liberals want to fix their electoral challenges and become a genuinely liberal party they need to do two simple things: ditch Tony Abbott, and find a way to destroy the influence of developers on state political parties.

Do that, and the Liberals will hold power for a generation.

fn1: And would have been wiped out much sooner, except that the religious right wing of the federal party carefully organized a hit job on the moderately liberal state leader and replaced him with a far right christian; during this vicious hit job the party leader attempted to commit suicide, and the current federal Liberal leader joked about his suicide attempt the same day.

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