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Direction of the Road

Ursula K. Le Guin

October 21, 1929 – January 22, 2018

A Personal Tribute

I bonded with my dad over science fiction. I’d read everything of any interest in the kids’ library and I was still a few years too young to join the adult one, so I started looking a little more closely at what he was bringing home. There were a lot of yellow jackets. He could borrow half a dozen at a time, so he did, and I was curious. So he started letting me have some. Anthologies of short stories at first then, once I was on the hook, the hard stuff – novels. I loved the ideas. He was your classical sci-fi enthusiast – young in the 40s and 50s, an engineer, an amateur futurist. When I was four he kept me up to witness the moon landing, while he assembled an Airfix model of the lunar module. I didn’t really get the momentousness of the occasion at the time, but later I was glad to have the memory.

Anyway, one day he came in and handed me a paperback, saying only, “I think you’ll like this,” and walked off. Now when I’d first started reading sci-fi he’d pointed out a few basics. All those yellow jackets, for instance, were from a certain publisher who we can’t mention who published almost exclusively sci-fi and fantasy. And if something had won a Hugo or a Nebula Award, it might well be pretty good. If you don’t know what those are, they’re a bit like the Oscars and the Golden Globes. Is it the Golden Globes? Whichever one is by popular vote anyway. The Hugo is voted by fans, the Nebula by other writers. Occasionally they agree. This novel had been nominated for both. It was The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin, and he was right – I liked it a lot. It was the best thing I had read, and it began what will be, for me, a lifelong relationship.

It’s an odd thing to describe, though I’ve seen quite a few attempts, the relationship you have with a writer. Entirely one-sided, nonetheless profound, a relationship entirely of the mind. They needn’t even be alive when you encounter them, but some are, and some are there in person for 40 years, and then they go, and you feel as if you’ve lost an old friend. That happened to me when I heard of the passing of Ursula Le Guin in January. And what a friend I lost! For a purely intellectual relationship, she brought an awful lot to the table, and she drew on all of it in her work. I don’t know how to even begin to approach that body of work, and the sheer scope of her knowledge and her imagination, except the way I did first time round.

When I read that first novel, set in her beloved Portland against the backdrop of majestic Mount Hood (those who have read the book will be chuckling now, others will have to read it to find out why), first she lured me in with a delicious, juicy sci-fi and philosophical what if – what if you dreamed, and your dreams became reality, but nobody else realised what was happening, only you? I mean, how good is that? What would you do? People would think you were mad if you told them. Then she introduced a character, not a hero, not a sci-fi stereotype, but a real, ordinary but nuanced character, George Orr (thought to be a reference to Orwell), who has this power and is terrified by it. He can’t stand the responsibility of determining reality, regulated only by his subconscious. He begins to dread sleep, and becomes addicted to ‘uppers’ in an attempt to avoid it. As a result of this he is caught using an illegally obtained prescription and sent to compulsory psychiatric evaluation.

We now meet his psychiatrist, the well-meaning but grandiose Dr Haber. He has a particular interest in sleep and dreaming, and using a combination of hypnosis and a machine of his own invention, designed to augment dreaming, he puts George under and directs him what to dream. Over the course of a few sessions he comes to the stunning realisation that Orr is telling the truth, that his dreams really do change reality, and begins to attempt to use him to remake the world as he, Haber, thinks it should be. This is probably the point where I should say, “Spoilers!” and discretely draw a veil over any further discussion of the plot. So lets see, she’s given me a great sci-fi idea, characters I care about, oh and did I mention that she writes beautifully? In prose that was at once sparse and sparkling she opened the doors of literature to me, far more than anything I ever read at school did.

But it doesn’t stop there. As I began to look for her work and discover it, I could not fail to be impressed by the sheer scope of her knowledge and understanding. The child of two anthropologists, she assimilated psychology, political theory and Taoism, studied French and Italian Renaissance literature, understood environmental truths, before they became inconvenient, or even fashionable, and she used all of it to craft fascinating, challenging novels which imagined an array of possible human societies, such as an androgynous one, in ‘The Left Hand of Darkness,’ and an anarchist one in ‘The Dispossessed,’ as well as exquisite short stories like those in ‘The Wind’s Twelve Quarters’ (don’t ask me where that title comes from, I assume it just sounded good, it has no obvious connection to the stories, of which there are seventeen). This she opens with the tragically beautiful ‘Semley’s Necklace.’

Before I talk about that however there is something I have to explain. Ursula Le Guin wrote both science fiction and fantasy. The readers of these genres form two discreet groups, although there is some overlap. I will mostly be talking about her science fiction, but I cannot fail to mention her acclaimed Earthsea Trilogy and associated works. A Wizard of Earthsea, published in 1968, was the first of three books exploring the life of Ged, a young wizard. Spoiler alert: Ged grows and matures into an adult, starting with his attendance at a secretive school for wizards, where he is scarred on the face by a dark power (which he discovers is inextricably linked to him), and that he subsequently defeats. Sound familiar at all? There are words for that. Ugly words. But ugly words are not what Le Guin did. She said only that J.K. Rowling should have been “more gracious about her predecessors”.

She herself was more than gracious about her own predecessors, but never less than original in her vision. Being pigeon-holed as a ‘genre writer’ meant that for much of her career she lacked the recognition by the mainstream literary establishment that she so richly deserved. It was only in recent years that this began to change. She was awarded the 2014 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters (presented by Neil Gaiman, whose many literary accomplishments include an honourable mention from me for slipping a relatively arcane Le Guin reference seamlessly into an episode of Doctor Who), and in 2017 that she was finally voted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. The genre itself has been more forthcoming, and she has won many Hugo, Nebula and Locus awards, far more than is practical to list. Let me just mention that she was only the second ever writer to win both the Hugo and Nebula awards for the same novel, with The Left Hand of Darkness in 1970 (behind Frank Herbert for Dune), and was the first of only five writers in history to achieve that feat twice, in 1975, when she won for The Dispossessed (ahead of Arthur C. Clarke, Rendezvous with Rama/The Fountains of Paradise). Asimov only managed it once.

I mention those names because when you look to place Le Guin in the sci fi pantheon, it’s way up there you need to be looking. For my money she is the best of them. They were great storytellers, but none had her psychological or political depth. They didn’t move me, and challenge me, and delight me the way that she did. She loved to challenge assumptions, not only within the genre, but in literature more generally, and in society as a whole. Her beautifully crafted prose always had a sharp sociological edge. She consciously set off to question the norms of fantasy and science fiction, especially in terms of race and gender. She was outspoken, for instance, about the “colour scheme” of her Earthsea series. She wrote:

“I didn’t see why everybody in science fiction had to be a honky named Bob or Joe or Bill. I didn’t see why everybody in heroic fantasy had to be white (and why all the leading women had “violet eyes”). It didn’t even make sense. Whites are a minority on Earth now.”

She kept to this approach in her work from then on, not only in her Earthsea books, but also in her ‘Hainish Cycle’ works (so most of her sci-fi including those books already discussed). You’ll notice white characters are the exception rather than the rule. I was going to say her ‘hard’ sci-fi works, but in the course of research for this tribute it’s come to my attention that not everyone has the same definition of hard sci-fi as me, and here I must bring my dad in again. I read somewhere that there were those who felt that works like The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed were not what they considered hard sci-fi because they concentrated too much on characterisation and sociological analysis. In other words, too much about people, culture and society, not enough space ship battles. My dad had a different definition of hard sci-fi, and I’ve always followed that one. It is that in order to be considered ‘hard,’ sci-fi writing must rest on actual science, and not speculation or easy cop-outs.

So for my dad, the fact that Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle books were premised on an Einsteinian universe where faster than light travel is not possible put them firmly in the hard sci-fi category. Writers who relied on unexplained, wishful-thinking props such as warp drive (looking at you Star Trek) to circumvent Relativity could make no such claim (and yes, I know, there is some theory to support it. These days. There wasn’t when they made it up). All of which brings me back to the opening story of The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, one of the finest anthologies of short stories ever published. Because there are narrative problems with an Einsteinian universe which must be addressed. Le Guin decides to meet them head on and make them integral to the plot in the story Semley’s Necklace. Semley, a member of a society which has fallen back to a pre-technological state, seeks a priceless, fabled family heirloom. She learns that it is in the possession of another culture with whom hers shares a planet, but which is a hi-tech, spacefaring society.

On hearing her request they deny knowledge of it, so she turns to a third group, the Gdemiar, who manufactured the necklace. They agree that she may reclaim the artefact, which is in a museum. On a space station. Light years away. She insists on journeying with them to recover the necklace, despite their attempts to explain the problems of Relativity this entails. She experiences the journey as ‘only one long night’ but when she returns nine years have passed, her husband is dead and her daughter is grown up. To those used to the cop outs, this comes as something of a shock. It was certainly a surprise to the 12 or 13 year old me. The rest of the anthology lived up to the promise of that opening tale, and finished with three absolute gems – a story from the perspective of a tree (the name of which I’ve borrowed for this tribute), ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,’ a timeless moral conundrum that many of us on the left consider defining, and a poignant prequel to her novel ‘The Dispossessed’ in which we meet Laia Asieo Odo, the semi-mythical theoretician whose writings underpin the anarcho-syndicalist society of Anarres, on the last day of her life, ‘The Day Before the Revolution.’

As Odo, or Laia as she thinks of herself, reminisces about her life we get to know a character who is achingly human, and at the same time a true revolutionary, throughout her life dedicated entirely to her people, often to her own detriment. It’s an exquisitely beautiful portrayal, and it demonstrates what is incomparable about Le Guin. It relies on a comprehensive knowledge of political theory, revolutionary movements, sociology, psychology, and a deep understanding of the human condition. Only a highly empathic polymath could have written it, and that’s a surprisingly rare combination. She was my introduction to most of those subjects. If you’re political, if you think about society, about how it is and how it might be, if you question what others take for granted, then I can assure you, Ursula Le Guin is the science fiction writer for you. She was the one who walked away from Omelas, she has shown us the direction of the road, but she has left us the day before the revolution. She has not left us empty handed though, so get down to your local library and make a friend for life.



The Battle of Hawthorn Town Hall

         Hanson and me in the 90s

or, Pauline Hanson & Me

Last night shortly after I started this the battery in my modem melted down. It just stopped working, and on inspection it felt as though the interior of the battery had turned to mush. So today I will be spending the day without internet access until I can collect a replacement, hopefully tomorrow. This is somewhat disappointing, as I had intended to publish this story today, as it is a significant anniversary. Twenty years ago, on the 19th of July 1998, an incident took place which has become quite famous, or infamous depending on your point of view, in Australian political history. Or possibly mythology. Pauline Hanson, the neo-fascist Queensland politician, was prevented from addressing a public meeting in Melbourne at the old Hawthorn Town Hall by a counter demonstration and picket. Much has been said and much has been written about the events of that day, both at the time and in the years since, absolutely none of it accurate. Despite the fact that at least 2,000 people were there that day, with some estimates saying as many as 3,500, only around a hundred people, half of them demonstrators and half of them cops, know what really happened. I am one of them, and I think the time has come for the story to be told and the record corrected.

In researching this story I have read a number of accounts of the events of that Sunday afternoon, from both left and right, and of course numerous media reports at the time, none of them remotely reflecting the true story. Of course this is in part because many of those discussing it didn’t actually see it, and tend to have an axe to grind, the Hanson apologists wishing to portray it as left wing thuggery (poor, misunderstood little fascists), a dastardly plot by the ALP or the Greens or, even less plausibly Militant, who had a negligible presence in Australia at the time and the leaders of the organised left wishing to paint it as a great victory for their tactics and strategy. In fact it was neither. The first point I have to address is the violence that really did take place and the reason for it. As with the fact that Hanson was prevented from speaking, everyone has sought to impose their own interpretation of this violence. For the Hansonites it was an outrageous victimisation, for the left a heroic stand against oppression and for the police, well they painted themselves as the victims too. Again, they are all wrong, and the truth is far more mundane, and far less flattering to all concerned.

For those who remember the incident, have you ever wondered why, although there were a number of injuries that day, there were no arrests? There’s no great mystery about it in fact. The simple truth is no arrests were made because no offences were committed. Not by the demonstrators at any rate. Unfortunately I can’t say the same for the police. The violence was on their part, and was entirely the responsibility of the sergeant in charge of the contingent of mounted police attending. Without orders, acting on his own initiative, he led his unit through the crowd in front of the town hall, riding down demonstrators and causing all of the injuries. The incident commander, who was inside the building at the time, was heard to be furious when he was informed of what had happened. He demanded they be called off, but this was not done for, again, one simple reason – the police comms failed.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, that was later. I haven’t arrived yet. The meeting was scheduled for 4pm, and I got there shortly before that in the company of two friends, a couple in fact, who were relatively inexperienced with demos and who were somewhat apprehensive given the trouble that had attended earlier One Nation events in Geelong and Dandenong. I was 33, and a veteran of numerous demos in Glasgow and London, so I’d sort of taken them under my wing. When we arrived most of the demonstrators were already there, the vast majority at the front of the town hall on Burwood Road. I suggested we take a walk around the whole block before joining them. This was basically a scouting mission to identify all the access points to the area, to work out where we could go if things turned ugly.

Now the geography of the place is key to this story, and building work means it no longer looks the way it did, so in the absence of an accurate diagram I’ll have to describe it as best I can. The town hall complex was on a corner. The cross street was Glenferrie Road. Part of the complex is, or at least was in 1998, the Hawthorn Police Station, which was around the corner and behind the town hall. Between them was an open quadrangle in use as a car park, with a larger car park taking up the diagonally opposite corner of the city block. There was access to the rear of the complex from that car park, across a wide area, and also by two narrow passages on either side of a smallerbuilding (not sure what that was, gone now) which occupied the actual corner, one along the side of the town hall and one along the side of the police station. At the rear of the hall there was a passageway along the back side of the building, about 12′ – 15′ wide, contained by a wall around 4′ to 5′ high, which allowed access to a side door. This wall had a gap of around 15′ – 20′ right at the back. To access the hall you would enter the passageway there, turn left and walk around the corner to the side door.

Much has been made of this layout by the Hansonites. According to this document, which appears to have been online since shortly after the day, the police were either weak or in league with the protestors, because it should have been easy for them to bring Hanson in by that side entrance. And it might have been, because I believe that had been their intention all along, if it hadn’t been for my scouting mission. Yes folks, confession time, I was the one who thwarted that plan. You see, when I saw that layout it was immediately clear to me what they intended to do. There were hardly any demonstrators at the rear of the town hall at this point. Adjacent to the gap in the wall someone had parked a Nissan Civilian, directly facing the wall. A Civilian is a small bus, bigger than a minibus, smaller than a city bus or a coach, holds about 30. It was dusty, white and unmarked. A bit like this:

It occurred to me that it would be the simplest thing in the world to bring up another similarly-sized vehicle to take the corresponding position on the other side of the gap, creating an easily defensible area into which they could bring her by car. Of course they didn’t want the demonstrators to realise what they intended to do, so they had left just one young cop to keep an eye on it. There were no demonstrators near it. When I figured out their plan, I went to the first stewards I could find and asked for a couple of dozen people to go and block the passageway. People who heard this started volunteering and soon we had what I estimated to be an adequate number, so I led them round there. As soon as we got there the single cop on lookout duty got on the radio, which was still working at that point, and cops started arriving from everywhere!

We were able to get roughly half way along the rear of the building before they mustered sufficient numbers to link arms and block our progress. Now I didn’t do a careful head count, but I’d estimate there were roughly 50 of us, and a similar number of police, some of whom arrived behind us so we were hemmed in. That was fine, because we had successfully blocked the passageway, and the police presence was effectively helping us to do that. Indeed at first they were pushing us in both directions at once. At that point I stuck my head up and loudly pointed out that this was what they were doing, and suggested they make their minds up. “Which way are you trying to push us?” They didn’t know. I’d rumbled their Plan A, and they clearly didn’t have a Plan B. But they stopped trying to push us from behind. Because of the wall there was nowhere for us to go anyway.

In this article, written by someone involved in the organisation of the demo, they claim that demonstrators linked hands all the way around the town hall, and bravely held out in the face of mounted police charges. The earlier document indicates that the Hansonites believed that too. Didn’t happen. In fact there were effectively two separate actions that day. The first, and the one that everyone saw, including the TV cameras, was at the front of the hall. Over 2,000 people participated there. The ill-disciplined action by the mounted police unit took place there, and those who faced that charge were indeed courageous. I want to be absolutely clear about that. I didn’t see it personally, but I know they stood their ground, and that deserves acknowledgement and credit. The decisive action however, the reason the police incident commander advised Hanson they could not guarantee her safety if she attempted to enter the hall, was carried out by me and my brave 50 out the back.

Once we and the 50 or so police who responded to us settled into our allotted roles that afternoon, we began to communicate. This is very important. If you ever find yourself on the front line of a demo, this is what you do. You keep up a dialogue. Now it fairly quickly became apparent to me who the natural leader amongst the police was. He was being extremely vocal, and was yelling, “Blood rule! Blood rule!” when I first noticed him. Remember, this was in the days when people were still fairly paranoid about blood, fully effective treatments for HIV/AIDS were not yet available, and all sports were rigidly enforcing blood rules whereby the slightest sight of blood would immediately see the player sent to the sidelines to be patched up. The pre-eminent sport in Victoria was of course Australian Rules Football (AFL), hereinafter referred to as ‘footy.’ So I looked where this guy was pointing.

He was right. There was a young guy on our side who was bleeding from a head wound. It wasn’t a particularly serious-looking one, and he almost certainly got it before he joined our number, but the blood was clearly visible. I worked my way through the crowd to reach him and told him to go and get medical attention. There was a first aid tent in fact, not more than about 50 yards from our position at the near corner of the larger car park. St. John’s I believe. He didn’t want to go, so I spoke to him in the voice I inherited from my father (the one that allows me to do gigs without a mic or busk in busy streets), making sure everyone on both sides heard me. I told him he was injured, that he’d done his bit, and that now he needed to go and get medical attention. I got the rest of my 50 behind me, and by moral suasion we prevailed on him to go. I took care to let him do so without losing face, and we even gave him a few cheers and a round of applause as he went. I then turned my attention to the vocal cop.

His name (and this alone shows that it was a more innocent time, the fact that many of the cops were still wearing their name badges, you don’t see that any more) was Constable N. Smith. I’ll explain the reason I remember that like it was yesterday in a minute. Now for my non-Australian audience, I should explain that police ranks in Australia are a little different to those you’d find in Scotland or the UK. Constables are obviously the same, but you also get Senior Constables. That’s sort of equivalent to a Sergeant. They wear two stripes. An actual Sergeant is equivalent to a UK Inspector, and a Senior Sergeant is equivalent to a Chief Inspector. The group who faced us were mixed, Constables and Senior Constables. So although Constable Smith was not the senior officer present, nobody seemed to be formally in charge, and he emerged as the natural leader. So once our wounded soldier had departed I got his attention.

I can’t remember my exact words, but basically I communicated to him, in far fewer words than I’m about to use, that our enforcing of the blood rule, at his request, was a good faith gesture, and proposed that we agree to broaden the understanding and adopt footy rules more generally. That meant a bit of push and shove, a bit of the old hip and shoulder, was fair game but there was to be no striking, no kicking, no tripping, no eye-gouging, no hair pulling, etc. Once that understanding had been reached, Constable Smith and myself kept up a continuous dialogue, with a bit of friendly banter, for the rest of the afternoon to ensure its enforcement on both sides. I soon nicknamed him ‘Norm’ because of the medal. The Norm Smith Medal is awarded to the player adjudged best on ground in every AFL Grand Final. It’s named for some legend of the game from way back. I want to say 1920s. That’s why I’ve never forgotten his name. Anyway, the dialogue worked and where we were there were no injuries and no arrests that day.

They did try to bring a couple of people through. One made it, albeit looking as though he’d been dragged through a hedge backwards (which he had really, a human hedge), the other didn’t. Nobody struck them, but we were completely hemmed in, forming a solid phalanx. There simply wasn’t room for anyone to move. Not that we were trying. Our intention was to put our bodies in the way and to block access. In this we succeeded, at least insofar as having seen the results of their attempts to bring people through our cordon, the commander recommended to Pauline Hanson not to try it, and told her, I would imagine, that he couldn’t make any promises once she was in the middle of the crowd. Due to the extremely restricted space there was no chance for either side to reinforce our numbers once the block was established. Would she have been unharmed if they had tried it? I don’t know. That was certainly my intention, but she does tend to attract a lot of hostility. I do know that in the case of those two of her supporters they tried to get through, they were not harmed, however we carried out our stated intention of doing our best to block their path.

So given all the above circumstances I am quite prepared to take responsibility for preventing her from addressing the meeting. I’d do it again in a heartbeat, and I’ll tell you why. I do believe in freedom of speech, as a general principle, with one vital exception – no platform for fascism. No right can ever be absolute, not in the real world. The reason for this is that there are overlapping rights, some of them a priori rights. All such judgements are a balancing acts. So where does your right to freedom of speech end? That’s not a rhetorical question. It ends with hate speech, because that infringes on certain a priori rights of others. Even Americans, who have more legal protection for the absolute right to freedom of speech than pretty much anyone, ought to understand this. The first rights their fledgling nation ever asserted for its citizens were life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In that order. And that is entirely right and proper, isn’t it. The most fundamental right of all must surely be the right not to be killed. Hate speech leads to killing, it’s as simple as that.

That is why in countries not quite so obsessed with free speech there are laws constraining what you can and cannot say. Incitement to racial hatred for instance has long been a criminal offence in the UK, and that is entirely appropriate too. The problem is, and this is certainly the case in Australia as well as the UK, that allowances do tend to be made for politicians that would perhaps not be made for the rest of us (think of Donald Trump – much of what he says would be illegal in the UK or Australia, some of it probably is even in America). Stephen Yaxley-Lennon* is, in my view, one such politician. He is in jail for contempt of court, for defying a judge, not for the disgusting things he says, although arguably he should be. Pauline Hanson, who as you may have heard has called for his release, is another. She is a racist, a proto-fascist, what she says (some of which she has got away with under parliamentary privilege) is hate speech, and although she is not physically attacking people herself, views like hers legitimise and enable such acts in the minds of others, of her followers. Once you set out down that road it’s only going to end one way – badly.

And it’s impossible to escape the reality that fascism is a problem for us, the working class left, to deal with. Nobody else will do it for one thing. Remember in the 1930s none of the Tories, apart from Churchill famously, wanted to oppose the Nazis. They wanted to reach an accommodation with them. In Spain only the International Brigades, working class, left wing volunteers, went to the defence of the Republic. It’s our clothes they’re trying to steal and our people they are trying to recruit for another thing. The reason these ideas are so insidiously seductive is because they marry some left wing-sounding economic populism, which they invariably fail to deliver on when given the opportunity by the way, with the deeply rooted human tendency to out group hostility, xenophobia and scapegoating. It’s the worst part of our nature, and we know where it can end up go in an era where technology has made us far more dangerous than we ever were in the days when being that way conferred, presumably, some sort of evolutionary advantage. The price of freedom, as they say, is eternal vigilance, and the only thing a tolerant society cannot tolerate is intolerance. For these reasons we must be eternally vigilant not to tolerate this poisonous ideology ever taking root or thriving again. It is not within the boundaries of legitimate political opinion. The ordinary protection of political speech does not apply to it. It understands only the language of force and as our grandparents knew, it must be opposed, unconditionally and at any cost. Never again!


*the fuckknuckle who goes by the alias of Tommy Robinson

Power – A Winter’s Tale

I want to talk to you about power. Not political power, or entrenched patriarchal power, but the everyday kind you get from the socket in the wall. Because I heard something very disturbing indeed recently – the UK almost ran out of gas, at the worst possible time. Now at the time I heard about this, it was Thursday the 1st of March, and I was stuck on the other side of the world, in Melbourne, where it was still uncomfortably warm. If you were in the British Isles, you were currently in the grip of the Siberian weather system known as the ‘beast from the east’ so that could have been a very real problem. We all know now that it didn’t happen. If it had happened then you’d all no doubt be well aware of it, and there would probably be an enquiry into the reasons. And if you’ve read anything be me before, you may well not be entirely surprised to learn that I’m going to blame the Tories for the entire mess.

They are entirely responsible for this though, through incompetence, mismanagement and just plain greed. And I’m here tell you why (because this is nowhere near well enough understood). It’s not really the present day Tories who are to blame, although it is happening on their watch, and they haven’t done anything to prevent it, so they cannot escape blame entirely. No, I’m talking about the Tories of an earlier era, the 1980s, and of course one Margaret Hilda Thatcher.

As with so much of what is wrong with today’s UK, it started with her. Of course privatisation has a lot to answer for, and I’ll be coming back to that later, but that wasn’t the start of it. It actually started in the early 80s, when we faced a number of strategic decisions about power generation. We had, at that time, a significant number of coal-fired and nuclear generators (including all of the 1950s Magnox reactors for instance) which were approaching the end of their design lives. The government still owned all of them at this point.

So, with major shortfalls in capacity expected by the early 90s, decisions on replacements had to be made, because the time lag from turn-of-sod to turn-of-key for 1GW+ power stations, both nuclear and coal-fired plants, is typically seven years. But Thatcher was determined to destroy the NUM, so she didn’t want to order any new coal-fired stations at that time.

So what about nuclear, you may ask? Well, as a result of her ‘price of everything, value of nothing’ philosophy, she decided to build more nuclear power stations, but at the cheapest available price. So a bidding war started, with the choice coming down to the leading US design, Westinghouse’s Pressurised Water Reactor, or PWR, and the British design, Babcock & Wilcox’s Advanced Gas-cooled Reactor, or AGR. The AGR was widely acknowledged in the industry to be the safest available design at that time, however the PWR came in a bit cheaper, so the decision was eventually made to go with that. However, due to the delay, before any actual starts could be made, Chernobyl happened, making it politically impossible to build any new reactors for many years afterwards.

So they were put on indefinite hold, but by now there was no longer time to avoid widespread shortfalls in electricity supply by going back to coal, plus by then the UK coal industry no longer existed, and we’d have been hostage to the international markets anyway. It was at that point that the decision was made to go with cheap and relatively quick to build gas-fired generators, which could be fuelled with North Sea gas.

Just one problem with that – when North Sea gas came on stream, we were told that we had 2-300 hundred years supply. But that was assuming it was used the way it was in the 70s, for mainly domestic and some industrial use only. There were no gas-fired electricity generators back then. Using it for powergen has resulted in that 300 year potential being reduced to more like 30 years, and the UK is no longer self-sufficient. Scotland would be, but not the UK.

In addition to that, the whole system has since been privatised. Also by Thatcher’s government. Private companies have not found it to be in their shareholders’ interests to hold supplies in reserve for extreme weather events such as the one recently experienced. In times when demand is lower, like summer, they don’t accumulate stockpiles, they sell it on the international market. Remember gasometers? Those big things you used to see on city skylines, that went up and down on periodically, and held gas reserves? Don’t see those any more, do you? Plus there was a single facility known as Rough off the Yorkshire coast that represented around 70% of the UK’s storage capacity. It was ageing, built in 1985, and needed a thorough refurbishment, but Centrica, the owners of British Gas, decided it was too expensive and got out of the contract that required them to do all necessary maintenance work, so they could just shut it down instead, with no alternative provision. Just like they worm their way out of every major powergen infrastructure investment that’s ever needed. The private sector does not build power stations. They are happy enough to buy them cheap once the public purse has built them, and run them into the ground, but they have never built one with their own money!

That is the truth that today’s Tories will never tell you, but you can check for yourself, they haven’t. When they have built anything at all, it has been with government grants and subsidies. Back in the early 80s, when I first studied economics, we used to call utilities like gas and electricity ‘natural monopolies,’ which obviously had to be publicly owned, because they were essential services and therefore too vulnerable to exploitation if they were in private hands. The argument goes that companies (and remember, economics 101, the purpose of a company is to maximise profit), would find the temptation to profiteer from essential services too great to resist. Then along came Thatcher and said, “No, no, no, we’ll open them up to competition and prices will go down!” Well? Have they? Are you enjoying the savings? No, of course you’re not! My mother, an 83 year old pensioner on supposedly the lowest tariff, got a bill for over 900 quid at the end of last year!

Prices have skyrocketed, as those of us who actually understood the first thing about economics always knew they inevitably would. The system we have now has competition, yes, but what it also has is two levels of private enterprise, in both generation and distribution, sucking money out of the system to give to their shareholders. How was that ever going to result in lower prices? You’d have to be an idiot or a liar to suggest such an obvious nonsense. Now, I don’t think Margaret Thatcher was an idiot. She must have known what she was doing, and that makes it fraud, on a massive scale. It’s quite clear. Google the Fraud Act if you have the time. Privatisation ticks every box, and the only valid defence for anyone involved in it would be to claim that they were too stupid to understand what the inevitable results of what they were doing were. So that’s the question modern day Tories and advocates of so-called market solutions must answer – are you too stupid and incompetent, or too crooked to be in charge of a petty cash tin, never mind a major economy? Because it has to be one or the other.

To use Thatcher’s favourite phrase, there is no alternative!

V’s Fee, East Kilbride Yes and Manels

I am reblogging rather than just sharing this because V is a friend and comrade, I saw the whole thing unfold in real time, and I can confirm every detail of this account. So if you want to dispute any of it then I guess, come at me dudes!


image6Victoria Pearson

I often think of twitter as a big noisy pub. Your mates are all in there, but so are loads of people you don’t know. You’ve got really interesting, passionate and important conversations going on in some corners, people snogging in others, people playing music or showing off what they had for tea, arguing over who would win in a fight between The Hulk and Mr Hyde. It’s a big pub, I’ll give you that, and it can be rough at times, despite the champagne guzzlers in the corner, trying to seem “authentic” and down with the crowd, but I’ve always felt very much at home there.
This weekend I learned that, much like in the pub, there are times when a snatch of conversation can be overheard, misinterpreted, and spread through Chinese whispers until it is totally divorced from any of its original meaning. Unlike the pub…

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Free Jaggi Now

#FreeJaggiNow In keeping with my #Manus theme this last week, I’d like to ask for help in drawing attention to the situation of a young West Dunbartonshire man who has been unlawfully detained in Punjab, and denied access to family, legal or consular contact. Story below. Please share.


A 30 year old Scottish man, Jagtar Singh Johan from West Dunbartonshire, has been arrested and denied legal representation while holidaying in Jalandha, Punjab, India.

Screenshot_20171111-173438Jagtar- Jaggi to his friends – was in the area for his wedding, and was shopping with his new wife when he had a sack thrown over his head and was bundled into a van by men in plain clothes, who the family found out later were policemen.

The Indian authorities have so far refused to give any information regarding Jagtar’s welfare or whereabouts to any UK MPs, or the British High Commission, although police have suggested in Indian media reports that his crime is that he had been “running a magazine” in the UK that outlines the atrocities of the 1984 Sikh genocide, and “influencing the youth through social media.”  

As far as we are aware, running a magazine is not a crime…

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Ex Manus Capere

Literally to take from the hand, this Latin phrase is where we get the English word ‘emancipation’ from. I must confess I didn’t know that until earlier this year. When I saw a graphic featuring the phrase, I had to look it up. When I did I realised how darkly ironic it truly is that we have turned Manus Island into a horrific, tropical, modern day, Château d’If hellhole. As some may be aware, I am a Scottish Australian. I was born and brought up in Scotland, but I have also been an Australian citizen for over 30 years, many of which I’ve spent living here. In fact the process that led me here started 34 years ago today, when I fell in love for the first time. Her name was Gayle and she was, as you may have deduced, an Australian. I’ve written about her, and my decision to come here, before in a post entitled The Moment When You Know. I won’t get into that here in too much depth, but let me just say for now that I was 18, and she had just turned 23. She seemed like such a sophisticated ‘older woman’ to me at the time. Today I have a daughter, Zoe, who is exactly that age, and that seems like such a strange thing to think, but from an 18 year old’s perspective that’s how it seemed.

They never met, Gayle and Zoe, because breast cancer took Gayle from us far too young, before Zoe was born. That’s sad, yes, as much for the world as for me, even though most of the world may never know what a remarkable person, a remarkable mind, we lost with her. But I’m not looking for sympathy here, it was a long time ago and I’ve dealt with it. As much as you ever deal with the loss of someone who played such a large part in your life. But every year, on this day, I still think of her. One of the things I think about is what she’d have thought about the world we now find ourselves in. Now as it happens the night before last I was having a twitter rant about what is happening right now on Manus Island. I was furious. I still am. Two years after I fell in love with Gayle I became an Australian citizen, in November of 1985. As a Thatcher refugee, at that time I was quite proud of that. I saw then PM Bob Hawke and former PM Malcolm Fraser take Thatcher on in the Commonwealth over her unconscionable support for apartheid South Africa. I was proud of that, and of Australia’s positions on human rights issues in general.

So it gives me no pleasure to say what I now have to say. It is with a heavy heart that I write this. It is going to be very difficult and emotional for me. The reason I mentioned the twitter rant was because an old friend responded to me, and we discussed it. Not as old as me, I hasten to add, but I’ve known her a long time. Her name is Carmel, and she and Gayle have a couple of relevant things in common. They both come from old, Victorian, Western District families, Gayle’s mostly Scottish and Carmel’s Irish. And they are both hardcore, dyed-in-the-wool Labor supporting families. So I heard an echo of Gayle when Carmel said to me, “And this is why, breaking my heart in the process, I can no longer vote for Labor.” Because they too are complicit in what is happening today. Both major parties have defiled the legacy of Whitlam and Fraser and Hawke. And more, in Labor’s case, because Doc Evatt’s fingerprints are all over the UN Convention on Refugees. The Convention which today we are refusing to honour is written, in large part, in his voice. An Australian voice.

This was when the UN was new of course, in the aftermath of WWII, when Europe lay in ruins and millions of people had been displaced. There was a desperate need to resettle them, and it was done, under the terms of that Convention. Many arrived in Australia at that time, and it is particularly disturbing that many of their sons and daughters are amongst our present day politicians. Because what we have done to those on Manus Island and Nauru is the antithesis of how those European refugees were treated, and it is despicable! I can shy away from it no longer. This has been a long time coming, many years, but I am incandescent with rage. What is wrong with us? Australia, what has been done, is still being done, in our name shames and disgraces every last one of us! It is unforgivable. It is immoral, unjust, illegal, contrary to every principle of our legal system and to at least four separate UN Conventions to which we are signatories, as found by their respective High Commissions. After the original sin of the dispossession and destruction of the indigenous nations of this continent, this is the worst thing we have ever done! And I can’t bear it any more.

        Château d’If, the island prison of Edmond Dantès in ‘The Count of Monte Cristo.’                               Image by Jan Drewes ( – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5.

Why what we are doing is so wrong:

I have long struggled to understand what it is that so many of us are failing to grasp about the complete and utter wrongness of this situation. But clearly there is something, so let me explain it as simply as I can. We have deliberately taken a group of people who have committed no crime and imprisoned them, without trial, indefinitely, as a gruesome example to other people so that they don’t not commit the same non-crime. That’s it in a nutshell. And you can’t do that! That is not a thing! It is not the behaviour of a civilised country, a democratic country, or a country that respects the rule of law! The specifics are these:

1. We seized their vessels at sea, in international waters, and took them prisoner. Thus breaching the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. It’s called piracy. The Convention brings together a body of international maritime law that goes back centuries, and is held to be of vital national security interest to every maritime nation. One of the first times we did it, way back in 2001 with the Tampa, people don’t understand how close we came to getting into serious trouble over that. Norway could have taken us to the cleaners at the UN Security Council and in the ICJ. Anyway, we did that to this particular group of people because the government had decided to change the rules about the non-crime they weren’t committing and they hadn’t heard about it yet, so essentially we just grabbed them at random.

2. We illegally imprisoned them in Guantanamo Bay-style offshore detention centres, specifically because we knew, well the government knew, and I did too, that what they were going to do was illegal, so they wanted to put them beyond the reach of the Australian courts. One of the most fundamental cornerstones of the Australian legal system, as it is in most English-speaking countries, is habeas corpus. It is the fundamental right of every person to have their day in court. The government determined to remove that right from a group of fleeing, persecuted people, and enough of us either looked the other way, or cheered them on, that they got away with it. Almost. Not all of us are complicit. There have always been people who couldn’t accept it, activists who campaigned, lawyers who brought cases pro bono, and the High Court was snapping at the government’s heels. I’ll come back to that in a minute.

           Australia’s latter day Château d’If, the Manus Island Detention Centre, PNG.

3. In doing the above we also breached three more UN Conventions: The Convention on Refugees, obviously, the Convention on Human Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. It was this last one the lawyers came after first, and they slowly and painfully forced the government into getting the children brought out of there. They also got the High Court to assert its own authority over the camps. But the government had a plan for that. They bullied the governments of Papua New Guinea and Nauru into taking over the camps. On paper anyway. In reality they were operated by private contractors, like G4S, Broadspectrum and Serco, with no effective oversight. No media allowed to visit either. And the High Court was effectively cut out of the deal. The whole time they seemed to go out of their way to make life in the camps as unpleasant as possible. Just a few days ago a former head of medical services there broke his non-disclosure agreement (they made everyone who worked there sign one of those) and told his story, of his battles with authorities as they constantly undermined him and refused to accept his clinical decisions.

4. We’re not through with the legalities yet. A case was brought in the PNG High Court, which decided about 18 months ago that these people were being illegally detained, in breach of the Human Rights provisions in their constitution, and ordered the government to close it. So the PNG  government looked to Australia to help, and once again we looked the other way. Told them it was their problem now. They had agreed, under pressure, to accept those detainees who were found to be genuine asylum seekers, and that turned out to be over 90%, according to all available sources,* so they had little option, in order to comply with the High Court order, but to say it was no longer detaining them, that they could come and go as they pleased. Oh, so that’s all right then, is it? No, it’s not remotely all right, for a number of reasons.

*The Australian government publishes no figures, but other sources report this, and also that of those who have been had an adverse finding, the majority had not actually submitted an application, because they did not want to settle in PNG.

Firstly, these people are our responsibility. We have no business offloading them onto PNG. One of the poorest countries in the world, PNG is a place where the rule of law does not hold in much of its territory. Australians visiting, even just to travel round the capital Port Moresby, are advised to take private security. Yes, bodyguards. Levels of violent crime are such that it is not safe to live there, especially if you are a woman. It’s only surprising we haven’t had a wave of refugees from there yet. That is not a place of safety for anyone. That is not a place that is in any way equipped to accept refugees.

Secondly, they are stuck on this little island, Manus, where the locals hate them. The camp was imposed on them, contained within a naval base. They couldn’t understand why these people were being held here, it’s a remote island, they’re not across the complexities of hanging onto marginal seats in Western Sydney. They thought these must be bad people. But remember those contractors? They employed local staff as guards, because it was far cheaper than bringing them in from Australia. Straight away relations began to deteriorate, culminating in the so-called riot, which would be better described as an attack on the refugees by the staff, and other local people allowed into the centre by them, on the 17th of February, 2014, which resulted in the murder of  Reza Barati, a 23 year old Kurdish man from Iran (pictured at top of page) by local and, allegedly (they were never prosecuted), Australian staff.

Since then four more refugees have died, from illness or suicide. Relations have not improved, and although the detainees are allowed to leave the camp now, they are afraid to do so. When they do they are often beaten, robbed, and in some cases stabbed. Only a very small number of refugees have taken up the formal system for resettlement, and some of those have sought to return to the detention centre! The very first one has said it is not a safe place to send anyone else.

Over the years the numbers on Manus have gradually decreased. Remember, this has been going on for four long years. Women and children have gone, some people have been transferred to Nauru, some have chosen, a devil’s bargain, to return to the countries they fled in fear of their lives rather than remain in this place without hope, with no idea how long they might be held captive. There are about 600 left now, all of them men, mostly young. Those remaining are not in a good way. They were refugees to start with. Many of them were already heavily traumatised. Four years of arbitrary and indefinite detention, with no appeal, and no release date, exacerbated by the hostility of the environment, both climatic and social, has traumatised them all over again. Many have PTSD, depression, anxiety and other psychological issues, and many are on medication for these problems. Remember that, it will be important in a minute, because this desperate situation has become an extreme crisis in the last week.

The PNG government has now officially closed the centre. Those living there have been told to move to a new resettlement centre, outside of the naval base, but those who have seen it report that it is still a building site, nowhere ready to receive them. It’s construction is strongly opposed by locals, who have blocked the road. The refugees have understandably refused to move there, and continue to occupy the detention centre despite power and water being cut, and no food supplies being allowed in. They are effectively under siege and fear they may be attacked by the PNG military at any time. Those who are on medication are running out, and even that is not being allowed into the camp. This is an unfolding humanitarian disaster. And what has Australia done? Again, nothing!

Behrouz Boochani is a journalist and an Iranian refugee held on Manus Island since August 2014. The Guardian invited Boochani to keep a diary of the closure of the Australian-run detention camp. This is his most recent entry.

Now, I have to apologise for the time it has taken to write this article, because time is of the essence, I know. I did say at the start (when it was Thurs 2) that it was going to be extremely difficult for me. It has been. It’s now Sunday, and I have just watched Malcolm Turnbull once again decline an offer from New Zealand, restated today by newly minted NZ PM Jacinda Ardern, who is visiting, to take some of the refugees. He prefers to cling to a deal he made with the Obama administration in its dying days to take most of them in exchange for Australia accepting a group of politically inconvenient Central  American refugees the US is currently holding. But Trump hates the deal, and although he reluctantly agreed to honour it, the Americans seem in no hurry to get on with it. They’ve taken twelve people so far, last I heard. That’s not going to stop this crisis turning into a disaster. It is hard to escape the creeping feeling that we, in the richest, most fortunate country in this region, are the worst people. New Zealand has offered, and there’s been no objection raised there. Maybe they are just a little bit better than us. Even Timor Leste, one of the poorest countries in the world, far poorer even than PNG, even they offered to accept refugees. And this was after they found out that Australia had bugged their delegation’s hotel rooms and essentially cheated them in the Timor Gap Oil Treaty negotiations! They are definitely better people than us!

So what happened to us? How have we come to this? Where did we go so far wrong? These are questions I’ll be addressing in the next section, as I look at the recent history of refugee policy in Australia. And I will be naming names. But that will take a while, and six hundred desperate people on Manus Island cannot wait, so I will wrap this section up and publish it. However there are two people I must name now. The two people most directly responsible for the situation today. The Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, and the Immigration Minister Peter Dutton. It is they who must now act, who must be shamed and forced into acting, before this whole farce takes a more deadly turn. Let’s take a look at Peter Dutton first.

Looking like Mr Potato Head with the cold, dead eyes of a shark, this is the man presently responsible for Australia’s immigration and refugee policies. And what is he thinking? Well he reminds this babel fish, perhaps more than any human being I have ever seen, of a Vogon. And as Douglas Adams tells us of the Vogons, “They are simple-minded, thick-willed, slug-brained creatures, and thinking is not really something they are cut out for.” That sounds exactly like Peter Dutton. He also tells us, “The frightening thing about the Vogons was their absolute mindless determination to do whatever mindless thing it was they were determined to do. There was never any point in trying to appeal to their reason because they didn’t have any.” Yep, still right on target with Dutton. So not much point in wasting our breath there then. Except…he did go on to say, “However, if you kept your nerve you could sometimes exploit their blinkered, bludgeoning insistence on being bludgeoning and blinkered.” Something to bear in mind.

Poor, hapless Malcolm. That’s what people are starting to think. A man with a great future behind him. He seemed to show so much promise as the young barrister in the ‘Spycatcher’ case, humiliating Thatcher’s Cabinet Secretary in court (eliciting the immortal expression ‘being economical with the truth’). He first showed his knack for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory when he led the Republican campaign to an unlikely defeat in 1999. When he entered parliament he probably joined the wrong party. Well, that’s what most people seem to think, including most of his own MPs! They dumped him in favour of the demented Tony Abbott in 2009, when he tried to persuade them to have an actual policy on climate change, although he continued to be quite popular with the electorate. His Liberal Party colleagues only turned to him as Abbott’s behaviour in office was becoming increasingly erratic, and their poll numbers were dreadful. A catastrophic defeat was on the cards. They knew he was far more acceptable to the people than Abbott, but that did not mean they had changed their minds. It didn’t mean they liked him, or agreed with him about much, so he was returned to the leadership, becoming with it the Prime Minister, on the understanding that he would not change any policies until at least after he won them the next election. So great was his desire for the job that he accepted those conditions.

When he took over, the nation breathed a collective sigh of relief, but then…nothing changed. The devil’s bargain Malcolm had made to get the job became apparent as he failed to act on a number of things the nation thought he really believed in, such as climate change action and marriage equality. So his popularity rapidly declined. In the end he went to an early election at the last possible moment, which sounds like an oxymoron, but he held on to office by the barest of majorities, one seat. Any longer and he would have lost. What this meant of course is that his authority within his party was not enhanced by the win, but weakened. He still can’t change anything, because now every single backbencher can hold the balance of power. And they are a deeply weird and conservative bunch, those backbenchers.

So let me speak to him directly, attempt to reason with him. Malcolm, you can see how this is going to end unless you can change the script. Your poll numbers are heading the same way as Abbott’s and it is a long term trend now. You don’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of re-election unless you show some spine, some leadership! And there has never been a time when a bit of real leadership was more desperately needed than it is right now. Malcolm, if there is a shred of human decency left in you, if you are capable of feeling shame, or responsibility, or empathy, for goodness’ sake man, if you value your political life, listen to me! Enough! Act now. Stop this madness, before something horrific happens. It’s time to end this nation’s shame. You have two options – either bring them here, or let them go!!!


Part 2 – How Did It All Go Wrong? [Under Construction]

When did the rot set in? Well, the last time we had substantial numbers of refugees arriving by boat was in the 70s and 80s. They were coming from Vietnam, because of the end of the war there. And it was dealt with. Recent governments have been all too keen to point to the Howard years as their model for a successful policy, but they don’t like to talk about policy in the Fraser years, which really did work, and did so without locking people up for years and traumatising them. Fraser’s Immigration Minister Ian MacPhee, a member of the liberal wing of the Liberal Party (an endangered species these days), went privately to the Labor opposition, they agreed on a bipartisan approach, and got on with it with a minimum of fuss. It involved setting up regional processing centres that people could go to, without having to get on leaky boats, and be resettled. Those refugees have been integrated and if, god forbid, you end up in hospital tonight, 50:50 chance one or more of their grandchildren will treat you in A&E. So why was this able to work then, but not now? Because nobody politicised it!

This was the key. Nobody tried to use it as a wedge, nobody used it to send a racist dogwhistle to those sections of the electorate that respond to such signals. And the world turned, and the geopolitical situation moved on, and eventually the flow of refugees dried up, and everyone forgot. Or almost everyone. Life in Australia went on, the ethnic make-up of the population slowly changing, as it had been ever since the abolition of the ‘White Australia’ policy. But not because of refugees. You see refugees are, in the context of Australian domestic politics, a distraction. They always have been. There have never been enough of them to make a noticeable impact on the population. You see the record number of asylum seeker arrivals by boat, which was back during those Fraser years by the way, was a bit over 25,000. But Australia has been accepting 150,000-300,000 migrants every year, from other sources, pretty much since the war. Our economic model is based on it, so we can’t stop. Creating a moral panic about boat people has proved an excellent way of distracting racists from that.

But when it comes to the perception of Australia’s changing ethnic mix, there’s another figure which dwarves even that of regular, skilled and sponsored migration, family reunion, etc. Over 650,000 overseas students arrived in the first seven months of this year. And two thirds of them went to Melbourne and Sydney. Now it might be that a similar number left, having completed their studies, except it’s a growth industry isn’t it, so there was probably a higher number in than out. And that’s not even for a whole year. Then on top of that there’s another growth industry, Chinese tourism, which has become a nice little earner in recent years. So if you’re a redneck, visiting the city from the bush, or the outer suburbs, yes, Melbourne and Sydney do look a bit like they might be Asian cities. It’s all the tourists, and the students, and the regular migrants. It has never been the refugees. The chances that you’ve ever seen one are remote. I just had to clear that up. There will probably be a few more things I’ll have to clear up as I go along.

So, back to the story. Nobody was arriving by boat for a while, until the 90s, then a few started arriving again. There’s been a lot of talk about push factors and pull factors. The truth is when the push factors aren’t there, nor are the refugees. The Taliban were the new push factor in the 90s. When they took power in Afghanistan a lot of people felt they had to leave, and some of them started to make their way here. Now some people would ask why they would come all the way to Australia? Surely they must have passed through numerous other safe countries first. These are, for many people, telling questions. Because they don’t bother to find out the answers. Now the first one used to puzzle me too, until I had a sudden realisation. I was watching a news report about the “Jungle,’ the infamous refugee camp in Calais. I was thinking, “Why do you want to go to England? It’s shit there. You’re already in France. They have better welfare, better wages, shorter hours. You’ve been misinformed if you think England’s better.” But then I listened, and they told us why – because almost every one of them had family there already!

So those Afghanis making their way to Australia in the 90s were probably the same. They had family here, or friends, or at least somebody from their village had once come here and written back to say they were doing alright. Because that’s how real life works.
“Where will we go?”
“I don’t know. My uncles friend went to Australia in 1981.”
“What was it like?”
“I don’t know, but he never came back. Let’s go there.”
And these are real people, try to bear that in mind. On the question of passing through safe countries, well that’s not really going to sway you if you’re determined to make it to where your brother is, but is it even true? In between here and Afghanistan there actually aren’t very many countries that are signatories to the Refugee Convention. And if they’re not, that usually means they have no provisions in place for refugees. They might let you stay, on a sink or swim basis, with no support, or they might not. They are unlikely to regularise your status and give you a legal right to stay, or work, or send your kids to school, or get healthcare. Need I go on?

So it started back in the 90s as a trickle. But for some reason Paul Keating responded to it by introducing mandatory detention. It wasn’t offshore yet, but it was happening, in remote locations in the desert. At that time I was working in the public service, and was a union activist. We had already begun to notice the development of a toxic culture in the Department of Immigration. It was thought at the time that a particular Secretary of the department may have had a disproportionate influence in that regard. Anyway, the fact is Paul Keating, and his two Immigration Ministers, Gerry Hand and Nick Bolkus, have earned the right to be the first names on my roll of dishonour. But little did we know what was to come. We were about to get the guy who wrote the book on ‘othering’ and demonising vulnerable and voiceless people for political purposes. The man with the charisma bypass himself, John Winston Howard.


North Korea – A View From the Southern Hemisphere

Melbourne, Australia, Friday, September 15

Things look different from down here. Most of the people around me don’t think that of course. Things don’t look different to them, they just look the way they look, but I’m not from round here, I notice. But North and South, up and down, are just arbitrary designations. Conventions. The above map is no more ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ than the maps you’re probably more familiar with, it just a different perspective. Let’s flip that perspective and see what it looks like. So in Australia life goes on. The right wing government is trying to bully a privatised energy company into keeping a fifty year old coal-fired power station open (I know, Alice, looking glass), I still haven’t got my ballot paper for the $122 million non-binding postal plebiscite on same sex marriage (no, we haven’t got it yet, long story), but on the bright side the footy finals are in full swing (that’s Aussie Rules of course). Oh and Kim Jong Un just lobbed another missile over Japan, threatened to sink it (Japan) and reduce the US to ash and darkness (I think it was).

Obviously this has been going on for a while, and there is a certain low level anxiety in the air, rising whenever something like this happens. I’m sure you’ve felt it, even in Scotland. And it has certainly taken a turn for the worse this year, since Trump came to office. Ever since then people have been asking me about this region, China, North Korea, etc. It didn’t used to feature much in the news over there, I noticed that when I was in Scotland in 2014. But have a look at that map. This is our neck of the woods. China and Japan are our two largest trading partners. Which, by the way, Boris and all his talk of a great trade deal with Australia – I’m not sure there’s that much we could be trading. Our biggest export is iron ore. China’s been buying shiploads of that for the last few decades, while Britain was getting rid of its steel industry. We’ve got coal, heaps of it that we really shouldn’t dig up, but Britain doesn’t really use it any more anyway. Other than that we tend to do the same things, pretty much. Food and drink, oil and gas. Oh, and we’ve got about a million wild camels, another long story, if anybody’s interested.

Anyway, we’ve been living with North Korea for a long time. And for most of that time, after the war of course, things settled into a comfortable pattern. They have always indulged in the odd bit of bellicose rhetoric, and everyone has ignored them and got on with their lives. There was a very strange episode with them kidnapping people from Japan and denying it for decades before finally letting some of them go, but until relatively recently they weren’t in a position to threaten anyone except South Korea, and South Korea’s nuclear alliance with the US seemed to preclude any re-outbreak of hostilities. Now, it has been described as an uber-Stalinist regime, but I’m not sure that’s the correct description. It certainly has Stalinist features. Some of the methods of societal control do resemble Stalinism on steroids. But how many generations into a dynasty do you have to be before you admit it’s a monarchy? And no ordinary monarchy either. The Kim family are worshipped like god-kings. And yes, economically it’s state controlled, but the people have been largely reduced to penury to serve the needs of the regime. The Egyptian Pharaohs probably ran a fairer society.

But does all this mean North Korea is an ‘irrational actor?’ This is the fear, isn’t it? This is the term TV commentators use. In Trump and Kim Jong Un we have two ‘irrational actors’ and what happens next is anyone’s guess, right? Well, yes and no. The addition of Trump to the mix certainly seems to have had a destabilising effect. Let’s just have a look at him first, before we talk about Kim. He is a man dangerously out of his depth. He is basically your mad old uncle who thinks he knows how to run the world, but by virtue (probably not the right word) of having personality problems beyond the dreams of analysts he has somehow managed to get himself elected US President. He seems to embody the Douglas Adams quote, “Anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job.” He rants, he raves, he blusters. He constantly changes his positions. He launches missiles over chocolate cake at Mar a Lago. He is clearly a wild card. But it’s not just him. As a Washington outsider, he doesn’t have the range of contacts in Washington a new President would normally have. As a result many positions, particularly in the State Department, remain unfilled, and a number of key positions that had to be filled ended up occupied by people selected for him by the Republican National Committee.

It’s hard to know who to be more worried about, Trump or those RNC picks, because they are a bunch of Reaganite neocon hawks. Cold warriors. And they think North Korea is a Stalinist regime, and they think that what ‘worked’ in the cold war will work again. That is also a dangerous perspective to take. With Trump you never know what he’s going to say next, nor how much of what he says he will actually act on, and how much is just covfefe, forgotten in the morning. He is careless with his words, and obviously in the present charged climate, with a leader as little understood as Kim Jong Un, that could be dangerous. But the ranking neocon in the administration, the Defence Secretary James Mattis, usually picks his words very carefully. So perhaps we should be worried when he says, about 19 seconds in to this video:

“Any threat to the United States or its territories including Guam, or our allies, will be met with a massive military response…” (my emphasis). He seems to be boxing himself into something of a corner there. Not any attack, but any threat, and not may, or might, but will be met with a military response. Of course, that was about two weeks ago, and there have been quite a few threats since then. Which brings us back to the boy king. Is he mad? Is he irrational? We tend to assume he is, because he looks pretty odd, as did his father Kim Jong Il. But maybe that’s just too easy an assumption. Let’s forget the Kim dynasty, and look at this from the North Korean regime’s point of view, as if they are rational actors. The next obvious reason we tend to think they’re mad is that to Western eyes their actions look potentially suicidal. We have become unused to seeing anyone challenge American military might as flagrantly as this. Russia and China have big enough nuclear arsenals to deter them, but they aren’t going around making threats. But how does this look to the North Koreans? They haven’t fought a war for a long time, but the last time they did they took on the Americans. And they got a draw. So they aren’t as automatically cowed as many countries would be. Even so, for a very long time they seemed to be prepared to settle, in practice if not in principle, for that result. What happened? Well, with thanks to the enthusiastically helpful Chas Licciardello of the ABC TV’s Planet America, and via the Washington Post, have a look at this graph of North Korean Missile launches:

You see, nothing much happened until the 80s. North Korea was a backwater, mostly forgotten about. Then of course Ronald Reagan became President, and in various ways upped the stakes in the Cold War. It’s easily forgotten what a white knuckle ride the 80s were if you were following geopolitics. It felt like we were on the brink of war, and it turned out we were when the 30 year rule documents started coming out. There were two or three occasions when one false move could have tipped us over the brink.* It was in that climate that North Korea first started playing with missiles, and discovered they could also be a nice little earner. Remember all those SCUD missiles Saddam Hussein had in 1991, in what I call ‘Gulf War 2’ (in my time there have been 3 wars simply known as ‘The Gulf War,’ the first was the Iran/Iraq War, then the American war of 1991, and the 2003 debacle)? They were basically North Korean rip offs of old Russian systems. So this is represented in the graph by the half a dozen tests in 1984, and another bunch in the late 80s/early 90s as the Cold War is ending. Or if you prefer, the entire post WWII settlement is unravelling. Unsettled times anyway. And all of this is while Kim Il Sung is still around.

Now, when I was discussing doing this article, which I was invited to write for another publication, one of the things the editor asked was this – Is some form of ‘constructive engagement’ possible with Kim and the NK regime? My first response was that it had to be, because all the other options were unthinkable. This is where some of the Australian perspective kicks in. Because if it all kicks off, and you’re sitting in Scotland, you’re probably going to be fine. That’s the good news. Me? Not quite so sure. The speculated range for the biggest missile they’ve got is 6,500kms. That puts parts of Australia in range, and if they’ve underestimated a bit, maybe all of it. And they have underestimated before. When Obama had his handover meeting with Trump, he pointed up North Korea as the biggest thing he saw coming up in the next term. At the time the US military thought they might be able to put a nuclear warhead on an ICBM in 2-4 years. The military later came to Trump and said, “Err, sorry, make that 2-4 months.” Not a good surprise to spring on someone of his temperament. So obviously that’s the first, and worst, option – an actual nuclear conflict, where Kim gets some missiles off (we don’t know how many he might have), maybe hits a few targets in Japan, Guam, any of the West Coast American cities, maybe even Australia. The Americans go apeshit and incinerate North Korea. There are a bit over 25 million people living there. There are 13.6 million in Tokyo, 4 million in Los Angeles, and another 7 in the San Francisco bay Area. This is not to mention over 51 million South Koreans.

The next worst option, and this is the sort of calculation military planners make before giving their advice, is if the US were to mount a successful first strike, and take out most or all of North Korea’s nuclear program. The estimate is that 10 million South Koreans would be dead within 20 minutes, from the North’s conventional weaponry. And the South would retaliate, and there could well be a fair bit of radioactive contamination around from the destroyed nuclear facilities. As I said, the options are terrible. So I thought some more. Trump tweeted that they had tried talking for 25 years and got nowhere. But is that really the case? Back to Chas’s graph of the missile tests. Well, no, after that little flurry of tests during the Bush presidency, there’s nothing for years. In 1993 Bill Clinton came to power, and in 1994 Kim Jong Il succeeded his father. And they talked. During this period the Americans did engage, and they were able to negotiate a freeze on both the nuclear and, as shown by the graph, missile programs for a significant amount of time. So bring that 25 years down to 15 years, because for the first ten they were talking, and it was working.

Now what do you think might have happened about 15 years ago that resulted in that progress being lost? Well, our old friend George W Bush declared North Korea the third member of his ‘axis of evil’ along with Iraq and Iran. He then proceeded to invade Iraq. Around this time the North Koreans fired up their programs again, although with a new range of missiles on the drawing board, it takes a few years to show up on the graph as tests. So bearing all this in mind, how does it look to a hypothetical rational North Korean regime? Well, they felt more secure during the Cold War, when they could play off China against the Soviet Union, got a bit worried when the world changed and started to take ‘precautions,’ They allowed themselves to be talked down during the era of Clinton and Kim Jong Il. Then it must have sounded to them as if they’d been put on a hit list. And Saddam fell because he didn’t really have WMDs after all. So if you’re going to threaten, you’d better be able to back it up. You see what the US failed to grasp, or wilfully misunderstood, was that Saddam really didn’t have much room to move. He had to give up his chemical weapons, and he had to tell the Americans he had, but he also had to imply to the Iranians that he hadn’t. Without those weapons he would have lost Gulf War 1. And when they put him on trial he was charged with using them against the Kurds and the Marsh Arabs, but never with using them against Iran, even though the numbers of Iranian casualties dwarfed all the others put together. But to investigate that would have implicated the Western countries that supplied him with the technology.

Anyway, the rational North Korean regime would, we’d have to assume, like all regimes of all kinds at all times, want to survive. So they take the decision to accelerate their nuclear weapons program, in an effort to reach credible capability before the US gets round to invading them. This takes a few years. There are tests in 2006 and 2009. We also see their first two nuclear tests in those years. Then there’s a pause. Just as they are ready to test some longer range missiles, Kim Jong Il dies, and Kim Jong Un comes to power in 2011. Many Korea watchers say this wasn’t a smooth transition. It has certainly been a bloody one in the inner circles of the regime, so it’s difficult to say how much of the subsequent test activity is just because they’re ready now, and how much is Kim cementing his grip on power. He has certainly taken pains to associate himself with every test, and has been far more belligerent in his rhetoric than his father or grandfather. And he came to power very young. It’s likely to be a bit of both though. For the last six years we’ve seen missile tests every year, more during the last four than ever before, and with progressively longer-range missiles, and there was a nuclear test in 2013, two last year and of course the recent claimed hydrogen bomb.

So obviously Kim wants to cement his rule at home, but what does he want from his international stance? Well, assuming he’s not actually suicidal, we can surmise, he wants to be able to credibly deter the US from invading or otherwise attempting ‘regime change.’ Maybe some form of economic aid, or at least the removal of sanctions. But I might give the last word to Bill Richardson, the former US Congressman, and Ambassador to the UN during the Clinton administration, who dealt with North Korea then. While being interviewed for Australian TV he was asked that same question – what does Kim Jong Un want? He replied, “Well, we could ask him. Nobody has really talked to the guy yet.” He is strongly of the opinion that diplomacy has been neglected, and needs to be tried again. It’s hard to see Trump as a peacemaker though. Since I started writing this on Friday night there have been further threats from the administration, by National Security Advisor H R McMaster (another neocon) and Nikki Haley, the current Ambassador to the UN (a slightly unhinged looking Trump appointee). So let’s just hope both sides are posturing, and that the neocons will stop short of a conflict the outcome of which they cannot possibly predict, except that it won’t be good. And that they can persuade Trump of that too.


*It was announced yesterday that Lt Col Stanislav Petrov (ret), the Soviet officer who averted a nuclear war on 26 September, 1983 has died aged 77 at his home near Moscow. As we increasingly grow to depend on computers and AI we should remember him. His actions that night were quintessentially human – he chose to disbelieve a computer. Because of that decision we’re all still here today. I was exactly eighteen and a half that day. It would have been a shame if that had been it. So long comrade, & thanks for all the years.

Guardian: Soviet officer who averted cold war nuclear disaster dies aged 77.

Spin Cycle

A commentary on the #GE2017 election campaign I’ve done for Ungagged. NB: If you’re reading this in the aftermath of the election, please bear in mind that it’s 9.30pm, the polls don’t close for another half an hour, so you can see how my analysis panned out. 🙂


Spin Cycle, Part 2

What Are We Going To Do!?!

Before I start there is something I have to explain, which is that ‘Spin Cycle, Part 1’ was written, and recorded for the podcast, on the 22 May, mere hours before the Manchester bombing. Obviously a great deal has happened in the campaign since then. I think it’s only fair that I reproduce that part, as originally written, so that you can see what I said at the time and compare it to how things have panned out since. I’ll put it at the bottom. I will have to update it of course, but I’ll do that by adding observations now, rather than changing anything I wrote then. Now, to business.

In part 2 we’re going to look at it from the Labour point of view. Or perhaps I should say points of view. Those guys were…

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The Hitchhikers’ Guide To The 2017 Local Elections

Since 2013 these electoral guides (for both Scotland and Australia) have been a tradition on this blog. We’ve now covered two Australian federal elections, a European Parliament election, a Westminster general election (No.2 coming soon), a Scottish Parliament election and of course two very different referenda. This will be the first guide to local elections, but it would appear the need is great, so let’s step into the breach.

People are unsure of how best to use their vote. I’ve already been answering questions on social media. What’s become clear is that the parties still don’t understand the system, and their confusion is confusing everyone else. Now in the lead up to publishing an election guide there is of course a bit of research involved. I have a number of pollsters and psephologists I look in on, the better to advise on tactical and strategic options. One of the latter is James Kelly of Scot Goes Pop, where I found this rather frustrated sounding article. He’s getting a bit sick of fielding questions about it. Well, I’m here to help.

You see the thing about this STV (no, not the TV shannel, Single Transferable Vote) is that it’s a system I’ve been using for 30 years. It’s the system for all Australian state and federal elections. What’s more, in recent years (and at successive elections) both my kids turned 18 and got to vote for the first time. Both came to me for advice, so I have been thinking about this. It’s really not as complicated as it seems. Let me walk you through it.

When I was a kid my father once said a properly wise thing to me. He said his job was to teach me how to think, not what to think. I’ve always taken the same view with my kids. They’re smart, they know what they think, they didn’t need me to tell them who to vote for, just how to use the system to get to their desired outcome. So what I needed to work out was the simplest, most explanatory thing I could possibly say about it, and it’s this: It’s not who you put first that matters, it’s who you put last.

Now in the UK we’ve been used to a very simplistic voting system known as ‘First Past The Post’ (FPTP). We get one vote, which we indicate with an ‘X’ (as though it was designed a very long time ago, for an illiterate electorate). Whoever gets the most Xs wins. Simple. It has it’s disadvantages though. It makes it very difficult for minor parties and independents to get a foothold, and it often allows an extremely unpopular candidate to be elected. How? Because it’s designed to elect the most popular candidate, and in a three or four-way contest, the most popular candidate can often be the most unpopular too. Think of the Tories. STV, on the other hand, is designed to elect the least unpopular candidate.

Here’s how it works. You get your vote, and let’s say you vote for Candidate A. FPTP says ‘Right, next!’ STV says ‘Right. But if you couldn’t have Candidate A, who would be your second choice? And your third? Your fourth?’ and so on. Now, the No.1 question seems to be, ‘Do I have to number all the boxes, and what difference will it make?’ To which the answers are ‘No’ and ‘Potentially quite a bit.’ I have seen some major party candidates asking their supporters to vote 1 for them, and leave the rest blank. That is bad advice. No, you do not have to number all the boxes. But number all the boxes!

To understand why, you need to understand the counting process. To make a preferential system (that’s what we call it in Australia, if you call it STV nobody will know what you’re talking about) work, counting has to be a process of elimination. So they count all the first preferences, the 1s. Now with FPTP that would be it. And if everybody took that bad advice I mentioned, only voted for their favourites and left the rest blank (which won’t happen), that would also be it. But in an STV system that’s not it. The candidate with the highest first preference total hasn’t won yet, unless he/she has over 50%, which is rare.

What happens next is that the candidate with the least first preferences is eliminated. All first preference votes for that candidate are then redistributed to whoever each voter put at No.2. Then they update the tally and repeat the process, eliminate the new last placed candidate and redistribute all their votes, including the ones they gained from the first candidate to be eliminated, which now go to those voters’ 3rd preferences. Repeat the process until only two candidates (or 4, if there are 2 seats – I’ll come back to this) remain. You then have what we call a Two Party Preferred (2PP) tally, and that is the result.

One important point about all this is that the candidate who was ahead in the first preference count, the one who would have won under FPTP, may well be overtaken by preferences flowing from defeated candidates. Another is that your vote cannot possibly end up with your last preference. Second last is the lowest down the order it can possibly go, because by that time you’re down to only two remaining candidates, and in order for it to get that far all of your other higher preferences would have to have been eliminated. It is, remember, a single transferable vote. It can’t be counted twice. It stays with your first preference as long as they remain in the contest.

Does STV Lend Itself to Tactical Voting?

Yes. Very much so. Perhaps the most interesting thing about this system is that it allows you to be far more flexible about expressing your true preferences than FPTP does, because as I said, it’s not who you put first that matters. It’s who you put last. Let’s imagine an example. Let’s say there’s a great local independent you have your eye on. And maybe you quite like a minor party like the Greens too. Realistically however, you think it’s probably going to come down to a battle between the major parties. With FPTP the logic is that you have to vote for the major party you want, not your wishlist candidate, because that would probably be a wasted vote, and might help the bad guys.

With STV there are no wasted votes. You can afford to give your first preference, or your first few, to whoever you like, as long as you put your major party preference ahead of those you definitely don’t want. Once they get used to the system, the parties will work out how best to direct their preferences to their advantage, preference swap deals will be done between them, and they will distribute ‘How To Vote’ cards showing exactly how they’d like you to fill out your ballot paper, just like they do here. Of course, by then you’ll be getting the hang of it too, and you can do what I do – refuse all their cards and work it out for yourself.

However, they don’t understand it yet. The SNP, Labour and the Tories seem to be following three different tactical approaches, all of them wrong. It’s now that we have to discuss multi-member constituencies, but don’t worry, it’s basically the same. In Australia we have single member constituencies in the House of Representatives, and multi-member ones in the Senate. Senate elections are usually for six members, or twelve in the case of a Double Dissolution (don’t ask if you don’t need to know, it’s very boring). I’ve been using the single member example for the sake of simplicity. In Scotland wards have two or more councillors, three or four in Glasgow for instance. That just means it’s your last two, three or four preferences your vote can never go to, instead of your last one. Now, this is where it starts to get a bit weird.

Remember I said back at the top that the parties don’t understand the system? Well, it turns out I didn’t know the half of it! Certain things have been pointed out to me since then (thanks Steve) which make that the understatement of the year. I was hoping to avoid talking about the Senate, because if you think next week is going to be complicated, this will give you the heebee jeebees. At the election last July my Senate ballot paper was well over a metre long. There are a number of reasons for this, one of which is important, so bear with me.

In a normal election we have a House of Reps election and a half Senate election, because the HoR has a three year term, but Senators have six year terms, so half of them go up for election every time the HoR does. However, in certain circumstances (again, don’t ask if you don’t need to know), the government can call a Double Dissolution election, which means HoR plus a full Senate election. That’s twelve Senators to be elected for each state. But that’s not the important bit. This is – every party or grouping which has the resources to do so fields a full slate of candidates. Six in a normal election, twelve in a DD. That’s why I found myself wrestling with a four foot ballot paper with about 90 boxes on it. But that is how you do it. Not to field a full slate is at best incompetent, at worst it’s running up a white flag. It breaks a political golden rule, namely never to concede a seat, not a single vote, until the polls close.

And yet none of the parties are doing this. Apparently when the STV system was introduced, nobody thought to take a look at a country that already had it, and where political strategists have had decades to work out the optimum approach. The Tories are only fielding one candidate in many wards. That makes some sense for them I suppose, as they are unlikely to be in a position to win two anywhere in Scotland, and they know that, and we know that, and they know that we know it. Labour are typically fielding two, which is the white flag option. Even if they were all to get elected, which isn’t likely, they still wouldn’t have a majority.

The SNP seem to be fielding three candidates in the four member wards I’ve looked at. That at least gives them the possibility of forming a majority, but it’s far from ideal. It makes no sense not to run a full slate, and I’ve never seen anyone do it here, apart from independents and minor parties who lack either sufficient members or sufficient funds for the deposits. But if you are going to do it, you’d better be 100% sure that all your supporters know what order to rank them in, otherwise you’ll split your own vote, and it will cost you seats. Perhaps what one friend suggested was right, and they are trying to adapt their (spectacularly unsuccessful, as I predicted) Holyrood AMS strategy of SNP1&2. Just… be really careful. Remember, it doesn’t matter whether you put them first, as long as you put them ahead of their unionist opponents, but it very much does matter that you put them in the right order. Similarly there is a tactical advantage in putting your opponents, if they’re fielding more than one candidate, in reverse order.

Is There A Strategic Angle?

Always. In Scotland, in the interests of consistency with my previously stated strategic objectives, I’d like to see the unionist parties removed from the political scene. The basic strategy for that would be to put all pro-indy parties and candidates ahead of all unionists. But consider also the value, especially in these local government elections, of a greater plurality of pro-indy representation. If we are to wipe out the unionist parties we’ll have to replace them with something. These elections are a good opportunity to get some good local independents and maybe some minor parties elected. You can take the chance, and if they don’t make it your vote will end up with the SNP anyway. In some cases you might even get, say, a Green and an SNP member. They clearly should be doing a preference swap anyway, but you don’t have to wait for them to realise that. And it might increase the overall number of councils with a pro-indy majority.

Tactics vs. Principle

This is perhaps the No.2 question I’ve been asked. What if there’s a UKIP candidate standing? Should I put them last on principle (many people, including myself, consider them a fascist party after all), or is it more important to put the Tories last for tactical reasons? The answer is that in Scotland* it’s highly unlikely to matter, but the elections aren’t only in Scotland. They are taking place in some parts of England and Wales too, and it might matter there. The thing is, it would only matter if it came down to a contest between a Kipper and a Tory. That would mean you’re down to your last two preferences and all your others have already been eliminated. I sincerely hope that doesn’t happen to you, but it just might (see local polling I suppose). Then it might matter, but only if the Tories are running a full slate. And there I’m afraid you’re on your own. Personally I think I’d put the Kipper last, but it’s ultimately a moral question, isn’t it? I can give you tactical and strategic advice, but moral issues are between you and your conscience. The third option, not making a choice, by leaving them both out, would be abdicating from that moral judgement. Of the three, I’d say that would be the least morally justifiable choice. But that’s just me.

Hitchhikers’ Guide to UK #GE17 Coming Soon!


*There are, of course, some UKIP candidates standing in Scotland. Yeh, I’m going to go there. 😀 Many of you will have heard of one of them. The most batshit crazy one of course. I’d heard a few things about her, but I was reading an article by Wee Ginger Dug the other day and he claimed she was a candidate in Clydebank (where I grew up). I was horrified. I did a bit of fact checking immediately, but the Dug had the wrong end of the stick. Probably because the story of Gisela Allen, the 84 year old, gorilla-fancying guilotine advocate, first appeared in the Clydebank Post. One of the reporters there took a punt and called her up, hoping for a story. He hit paydirt, and it has subsequently appeared in most of the national dailies. She is actually standing in Glasgow, Ward 13 Garscadden/Scotstounhill. I found a link to the list of candidates. Imagine my horror, when I discovered she lives in the street in Finnieston where my mother was brought up, and where, at the other end of the street, my family lived when I was born! Sometimes it’s a distressingly small world.

The Great Centrelink Debt Fiasco

How did this happen?


I’ve been getting asked a lot of questions about Centrelink recently. ‘Why is this happening?’ ‘What were they thinking?’ ‘How did they manage to cock this up so badly?’ The reason they’re asking me is that long before I was a blogger, before there even were blogs, way back in another lifetime called the 90s, I was a Social Security officer. And not just that. I was also a union delegate, chair of the Victorian delegates committee, and a National Councillor with the CPSU. And, most pertinently, for over a year I was a data matching officer. So I know the system, I know what’s gone wrong, and I feel I should explain. My past has collided with my present, because this calls for a Babel Fish translation.

Before I do that however there’s something else I need to deal with. A fellow blogger writing on this subject, Andie Fox, has had her personal information released to the media in order to, it was claimed, ‘correct the record.’ She has responded here. This claimed ‘legal right to correct the record’ does not exist. This was unethical, immoral and highly illegal. I am intimately acquainted with the privacy provisions of the Social Security Act (1991). They drummed them into us in basic training. Later, in my capacity as a union delegate, I was obliged to represent a member wrongly accused of a privacy violation. Here’s how it works: It was (and remains for those still working there) illegal for us to access any information, whether computer records or paper files, that we were not required to access for the purpose of doing our jobs. It was (and remains, etc) illegal for us to disclose to any third party any personal information whatsoever that we’d learned in the course of our work. It was very much a ‘need to know’ policy. We couldn’t even discuss cases with our colleagues if they didn’t need to know.

Let me give you an example of that in action. At one point I had a new car. Well, new to me. I’d had it for a couple of weeks. One morning I found a park right outside the office. That was unheard of. I took it as a good omen. I thought it was my lucky day. I was wrong. A couple of hours later, while I was working in the back office, I was informed that someone had hit my car and driven off. It so happened that some of my colleagues, who were out the front having a smoko, saw the whole thing. The culprit was a client. He had just left the office. Two of them knew his name. Both of them spoke to me, described the incident, and one discreetly slipped me a piece of paper with a scribbled SSR (Social Security Reference No.) on it, saying, “You didn’t get this from me, ok?

By this time the police had been called, and the next thing that happened was that the regional manager came flying out of his office to admonish us that we couldn’t tell those police officers anything that we had learned in the course of our work. So my witnesses could tell them his registration number, because they saw that during the incident, but not his name, address or anything that could identify him which they only knew because they knew him as a client. One of them had been talking to him just five minutes before, but couldn’t discuss that because it had taken place over a DSS desk. The police had to have official permission even to come through the door (Centrelink offices are Commonwealth premises, state police forces have no jurisdiction there), and I was then obliged to tell them that although I knew exactly who the culprit was, I couldn’t tell them anything except the registration number of his old shitbox Kingswood panel van, which (they later informed me) turned out to be registered to a two dollar shelf company.

I never got to recover those damages, and I just had to suck that up. Which is how I know that what the minister, Alan Tudge, and anyone in the department who assisted him in releasing this blogger’s personal information, has done constitutes a serious criminal offence. An offence that carries a maximum prison sentence greater than 12 months. He could go to jail. But a conviction, even if he escapes jail time, would disqualify him from being an MP. To call his actions foolhardy would be an extreme understatement. Now I, like the majority of Australians, have a Centrelink file. I will not, however, be discussing anything pertaining to that here. Unlike most, I also have a history of employment in DSS, the predecessor department to DHS. I will be discussing only non-confidential, systems-related information I acquired in the course of working there.

All of my personal information is, like everyone else’s, confidential. I really shouldn’t have to say that, but due to what has happened to Ms. Fox, I feel it is necessary to deny here any permission, explicit or implied, for the minister, or any officer of the department, to access any information about me. As I said, I understand the requirements of the privacy provisions. I have held myself to that standard, as the above story demonstrates. And you may be assured, I will hold you to that standard too. If I catch so much as a whiff of any unauthorised information about me finding its way into the public domain, I will insist on a full scale privacy investigation, and when you are caught, as you will be (because all access to the computer system is identifiable by a unique logon ID), I will insist on your prosecution, to the fullest extent of the law. You have been warned.

Now, to return to the matter in hand, some will say well, this was twenty years ago, the system must have changed a lot since then surely. Well, no actually. The basic software architecture that underpins the main social security system (including one of the largest databases in the country by the way) hasn’t changed in well over forty years. It was old and creaky when I was using it, and it’s positively antiquated now. Really it belongs in a museum, but on the other hand you’d have to say it’s proved remarkably robust, as by and large it still does the job. It still processes the transactions that have to be processed and pays the people it’s supposed to pay. Mostly.

The ATO computer system (another massive database) is also functionally obsolete by the standards of whatever device you’re reading this on now. The key to working with such systems is to have a good understanding of what they can and cannot do. One of the important things they can’t do is talk to each other. They were designed as one-off, unique, stand alone systems. It was never envisaged that they would be required to talk to each other. If you find that strange remember, when they were designed it was never envisaged that the year 2000 would arrive. Or (arguably) that they would still be in service when it did.

Anyway, in the 90s it was decided that being able to compare data on various government computer systems would be a good idea, and I.T. people from some of those departments were tasked with working out how to do it. To their credit they did work out a way, and the next question became ‘what are we looking for?’ So they worked out various things that could be cross-checked. These were called ‘Match Keys.’ Between DSS (now Centrelink) and the ATO (this is where it becomes relevant to the current debt fiasco), one of these Match Keys was a simple comparison of income. It works like this – the computer looks for discrepancies between ATO annual assessed income and annualised total DSS-declared fortnightly income.

Now, I have to explain what I just said, and why it is a blunt instrument. The ATO assesses income on an annual basis. July 1 to June 30. They don’t care when, within that financial year, you earned the income. Their computer system only knows how much you earned for that whole financial year. The DSS system knows how much, if anything, you earned during any fortnight that you were eligible for a payment from them. It’s not hard to simply add that up for the financial year, and arrive at an annual figure for DSS-declared income. It’s not hard, but it’s highly misleading. I’ll explain why, and also why it wasn’t a problem until now.

Why it’s misleading, why it’s a blunt instrument, is because it will throw up a match every time those two figures differ, and that means every time someone wasn’t in receipt of a DSS/Centrelink payment for the entire financial year. Yes, that’s right, not joking, if you worked for part of a financial year, and at another time during that year you claimed a Centrelink payment, you will be matched. And with the ever-increasing casualisation of the workforce, that’s a lot of people these days. Let’s look at a hypothetical example. If you’re not one of the dwindling minority with a job for life, you might have to take the odd temp job, maybe even a few casual days when they come up. So let’s say in the financial year in question you have a couple of temp positions, a three month one and a two month one. In between them you claim Newstart Allowance, but you also do some casual work, the income from which you declare on your fortnightly forms, as you’re supposed to. Later in the year you score a permanent job, but after a couple of months you get sick. You haven’t had time to accrue much sick leave yet so you have to take unpaid leave, and claim Sickness Allowance for a month or so.

Now, doesn’t that sound like a reasonably common scenario in today’s workforce? You’ve done nothing wrong. You’ve only claimed payments you were entitled to. You’ve declared all the income you were required to declare, to both the ATO and Centrelink. But Centrelink has a total figure of the income you declared to them (which was just for the casual work you had while you were on Newstart), whilst the ATO has that figure, plus the total of Newstart and Sickness Allowance payments you received, plus the income from your three periods of full time work. Obviously those two figures are going to be very different. Congratulations! You just tripped a Match Key!

Now, if this had happened prior to 2016, chances are you’d never have known about it. So what’s changed? It’s not the Match Key. That is, like the old computer system itself, self-evidently the same one I was working with in the 90s. No, what’s changed is that until last year someone like 90s me, a ‘Data Matching Officer,’ would have received a big pile of computer printouts (dot matrix, oh yeah, high tech) and checked them. The old-fashioned way, using what military pilots like to refer to as the Mark 1 Eyeball. We’d look at them. First we’d eliminate the 10-15% that were clearly just two different people with similar names (no, I feel like I’m saying this a lot, but I am not joking). The next thing we looked for was people who were not receiving DSS payments for the full financial year. We generally binned those ones. Because the obvious explanation – that they earned the additional income in the periods they weren’t on benefits – was the correct explanation 99 times out of 100. That’s a little thing called Occam’s Razor. The simplest explanation is usually correct. The Match Key does not take account of Occam’s Razor. Which is why I advisedly referred to it as a blunt instrument. 😀

But it was never designed to be used without the human checking part of the process! And that is what’s changed. They’ve removed that checking process, the job I used to do, and instead started writing automatically (unseen by human eye) to everyone with a match. Which is, frankly, crazy. So the obvious question is, “Why?” Why would they do such an idiotic thing? Here I can only resort to conjecture, but I have a few observations which may help to shed a little light. Firstly, this is absolutely a political decision. I know this because no-one in the department, no-one with any actual experience of the data matching system, would ever suggest such a ludicrous idea. I suspect someone in the minister’s office has seen the headline figure for this Match Key (which, it turns out, is about $4 billion), and got all excited about it. But it’s not there! It is a hypothetical figure that tells you how much would be owed if all the matches represented genuine discrepancies (which most of them don’t) and if all that money was recoverable (which it wouldn’t be). Only about 2% (not 80%, as still claimed by the government) of them represented genuine discrepancies, so the $4 billion is really more like $80 million. Which would have been recovered anyway! It would seem the ministerial staffers didn’t grasp this. Or did they?

The less charitable explanation is that they knew perfectly well that most of the matches weren’t legitimate, but cynically decided to pursue all of them anyway, in the hope that many people would simply believe the information sent to them in an official looking government letter, and pay up. There is considerable evidence beginning to emerge that this has indeed happened in many cases. This has been assisted by their hopelessly inadequate and opaque review process. However, if that’s what happened, then it was always a risky gamble. It was relatively cheap, in terms of staffing, to pre-check these matches so that only genuine discrepancies were pursued. It will cost a great deal more to review them all. And of course there was always the chance that the whole thing would come out, and become a massive embarrassment. Which it has. I think that just about wraps it up for the minister. His position has become utterly untenable. Bye bye Mr Tudge!


If anyone reading this has been affected by this issue, and you have any questions, please leave a comment below and I’ll do my best to answer them. If I don’t know the answer, I’ll do my best to find out (I still have some contacts in the department).