While the federal government has downplayed this suggestion, the pressure to do more to bring home Australians stuck overseas continues.
So, is it feasible to use the RAAF? What challenges might this pose?
What are the VIP aircraft?
The VIP fleet is operated by the air force to fly the governor-general, politicians and military leaders on official business when commercial flights are not suitable.
Albanese has honed in on the VIP fleet for obvious reasons: it’s currently sitting idle, the aircrews involved need to maintain their flying proficiency and Australians have always held a jaundiced view of the aircraft being simply another “pollie perk”.
However, while all five aircraft are long range, only the two B737 Boeing Business Jets could conceivably carry the 100 people mentioned — and that’s after reconfiguring their normal VIP fit-out that accommodates 30 passengers. The other three aircraft, the brand new Dassault Falcon 7X executive jets, have room for only 14 passengers.
The five aircraft are good for the VIP role, but they are not large capacity international airliners. They are inherently a rather inefficient way to move large numbers of people.
What else could the RAAF use?
The RAAF does have seven large airliners in service. These are the aptly named KC-30A Multi-Role Tanker Transport, a modified Airbus A330 airliner used for air-to-air refuelling of fighter aircraft and strategic airlift.
In the latter role, each aircraft can carry 270 passengers. For the past several years, the aircraft have been busy in the Middle East. But the last deployed KC-30A is just returning.
Allowing for some aircraft being under maintenance and others busy with ongoing training, the RAAF could potentially allocate two to three KC-30A aircraft to the “bringing Aussies home” task.
It’s possible but not straightforward
This would not be as simple as it sounds. The KC-30As are military aircraft, so decisions would need to be made whether to fly them into civil or military airfields overseas.
In the latter case, embarking passengers may be difficult. Moreover, being military aircraft (not scheduled civil air services), formal diplomatic approval would need to granted by the other countries involved.
There are further technical issues of guarding RAAF aircraft if they need to remain overnight at a foreign airfield, refuelling the aircraft on arrival, embarkation procedures and keeping the crews COVID–free.
There are also more mundane matters. like having aircraft stairs available and monitoring pilot duty hours — exhausted pilots are a flight safety hazard.
What about Qantas?
While this is technically feasible, there are also efficiency concerns.
Australians are scattered across the globe. They may need to find their way to major departure airport hubs — as diverting a large aircraft to pick up only a few passengers from a country may not be sensible. In addition, smaller countries may be unsure about letting a large, obviously military aircraft use their airfields.
It is in these smaller countries that Albanese’s idea of using the two B737 Business Jets might be more appropriate.
But if the RAAF has airliners, so too do the civil airlines. Qantas has many aircraft and crews available at the moment who, like the RAAF’s VIP crews, need to maintain their flying experience.
It’s true Australian taxpayers have already paid for the RAAF aircraft and crews, so the additional costs of picking up stranded Australians would be low. On the other hand, the airlines and their associated unions are in difficult circumstances. Should the RAAF do what Qantas could?
Finally, there’s the issue of quarantine. Only 4,000 Australians have been allowed back each week due to government imposed quarantine hotel restrictions. After a federal government push to the states, this is set to be increased to 6,000.
Large airliners, whether operated by the RAAF or commercial airlines, can bring many people home, but the cap on arrivals is a notable constraint.
This means the biggest benefit of such an approach might be not so much bringing more people home, but making the flights affordable and available. Today, with strict passenger limits, the airlines are charging high fees. This is a significant impediment to people returning, even with the Australian government offering loans to assist.
We could use the RAAF if we wanted to
So, while Albanese’s idea may be critiqued on its finer points, it is broadly doable. It’s perhaps a good if small example of politics in action.
At its core, when it comes to bringing home Australians in distress, it becomes a simple political question.
How should the government spend Australia’s taxpayer dollars?
The federal government, under pressure to expand and accelerate the return of stranded Australians, has pre-empted national cabinet by announcing the “cap” on these arrivals will be expanded from about 4,000 up to 6,000 a week.
After the announcement Western Australia immediately hit out, saying the national cabinet process was being flouted.
More than 25,000 people are presently registered as having expressed a wish to return, and there have been numerous hardship cases in the media and in representations to MPs offices.
The government says the new weekly caps will be: NSW 2,950 (present cap is 2,450), Queensland 1,000 (500), South Australia 600 (500), and Western 1,025 (525). Victoria, struggling out of its second wave, will not have any arrivals.
This adds up to only 5,575 but the government hopes the other jurisdictions will take some people, although there are not commercial airline services into the ACT, the Northern Territory or Tasmania.
The government wants the higher numbers operating by late this month.
The caps were imposed at the request of states, which were concerned at pressure on their quarantine facilities, in particular when Victoria, where there was a quarantine breakdown triggering the second wave crisis, stopped taking any returnees.
People wanting to come home are not just facing the problem of the cap but the difficulty of securing flights, and at reasonable prices.
Unveiling the higher cap Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack, who has responsibility for aviation, said he had written to premiers and territory leaders to tell them the caps for international flights based on quarantine levels.
“Not every Australian will be able to come home by Christmas, I accept that. But we want to get as many of those who need to come home, want to come home, paid for a ticket to come home, to be able to do so”, McCormack said.
The federal government says it has constitutional power over quarantine, and so does not need the states’ approval. But it will take the new quotas to Friday’s national cabinet.
Under the existing deal the states make the quarantine arrangements and carry the cost – although they are now charging returnees.
The opposition has called for the government to use RAAF planes to return some people. But the government says there are thousands of unused commercial seats, and the VIP fleet has only very small capacity. It also rejects calls for the use of federal facilities for some of the returnees, saying they are not available or suitable.
Attorney-General Christian Porter, asked on Perth radio whether WA had agreed, said he did not know but “we very much hope they will”.
WA premier Mark McGowan said he had not known about the announcement beforehand and described it as “very directly outside the spirit of the national cabinet”.
“I don’t really like the fact that this has been sprung via a press conference without a discussion with the people actually required to implement it,” McGowan said.
He warned of the risks of putting pressure on hotel quarantine and said using Commonwealth facilities should be looked at.
The federal government says it would consider ADF assistance with more quarantine, noting ADF personnel have been helping WA with hotel quarantine for weeks.
WA Health Minister Roger Cook said it was extraordinary the matter was being dealt with through a letter from McCormack and said Scott Morrison should call “his dogs off” and work with the premiers.
NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian said that after a request from the prime minister “I consulted my relevant ministers and the police commissioner, who is in charge of quarantine, and everybody said they could take on that extra load”. Her agreement was on the basis other states agreed.
Queensland premier Annastacia Palaszczuk also indicated her government was willing to take more people.
Scott Morrison will take a proposal to Friday’s national cabinet to slow arrivals of Australians returning from overseas.
Morrison’s proposal followed this week’s request from Western Australian Premier Mark McGowan for a cap on international flights landing in Perth to relieve pressure on resources, and the earlier diversion of flights from landing in Melbourne because of the new outbreak.
There is already a cap applying to NSW, and the WA government has said the federal government has responded favourably to its representation. Queensland also wants limits.
The prime minister told a news conference his proposal would be to contain the flow rather than pause it. He said the numbers coming in were very low “but at this time, we don’t want to put any more pressure on the system than is absolutely necessary”.
New Zealand has moved to slow the flow of returnees.
Morrison also said the federal government would support state governments charging travellers returning from abroad for their quarantine.
It was up to the states but “if they wish to do that, then the Commonwealth would have no objection to that”.
“I think that would be a completely understandable proposition for people who have been away for some time.”
There had been “many opportunities for people to return. If they’re choosing to do so now, they have obviously delayed that decision for a period,” he told a news conference.
Queensland is already charging – $2,800 for one adult, $3,710 for two adults, and $4,620 for two adults and two children, with some provision for waivers. The Northern Territory also charges.
As Victoria announced 134 new cases, Morrison’s message to Melburnians facing the six-week lockdown was: “It’s tough. And it will test you and it will strain, but you have done it once before and you will be able to do it again because you have proven that”.
“We’re all Melburnians now when it comes to the challenges we face. We’re all Victorians now because we’re all Australians.”
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said the cost to the economy of the Victorian re-imposed lockdown would now be factored into the government’s July 23 economic statement. It would affect forecasts for growth and unemployment. “Victoria is a big part of the national economy” and “the cost to Victoria is up to a billion dollars a week and that will fall heavily on businesses”.
“This is a major challenge to the economic recovery. This is going to have an impact well beyond the Victorian border. It’s already starting to play out in consumer confidence numbers that have been down in the last two weeks, ” Frydenberg said.
“We have been there with JobKeeper and the cash flow boost, which together have provided more than $10 billion into the Victorian economy,” he said.
“We’re ready to do what is required to support Victoria, and Daniel Andrews himself has said whenever he’s asked the Prime Minister for support the answer has been an unequivocal yes.”
Frydenberg confirmed there will be another phase of income support for the period beyond September when JobKeeper is due to finish. The future support would be temporary and targeted, he said. The higher JobSeeker payment is also scheduled to snap back at the end of September, although it is not expected to return to the old rate.
Frydenberg also indicated the government was considering bringing forward the next round of the legislated tax cuts. “We are looking at that issue, and the timing of those tax cuts, because we do want to boost aggregate demand, boost consumption, put more money in people’s pockets, and that is one way to do it”.
NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian told people in communities along the NSW-Victorian border not to move outside their “bubble”; nor should people go into these areas. She warned “the probability of contagion in NSW given what’s happening in Victoria is extremely high”.
The ACT has three new cases, the first in more than a month. Two arrived from a Melbourne hot spot and the third is a household contact.
You probably know the details of the death of George Floyd. He was a doting father and musician. He was killed when a police officer, Derek Chauvin, knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes while he cried out “I can’t breathe!”
Do you know about David Dungay Jr? He was a Dunghutti man, an uncle. He had a talent for poetry that made his family endlessly proud. He was held down by six corrections officers in a prone position until he died and twice injected with sedatives because he ate rice crackers in his cell.
At the end of a long inquest that stretched to almost four years, the coroner declined to refer the officers involved in Dungay’s death to prosecutors (who might consider charges) or to disciplinary bodies.
When I heard [George Floyd] say ‘I can’t breathe’ for the first time I had to stop … My solidarity is with them because I do know the pain they are feeling. And as for the Aboriginal deaths in our backyard … it’s not in the public as much as it should be.
A perception Indigenous deaths in custody are expected
Many people on this continent know more about police and prison violence in the US, another settler colony, than the same violence that happens here. Both are deserving of our attention and action, so what’s behind the curious silence on First Nations deaths in custody in Australia?
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have raised this concern long before today in the media and social media.
Why do we have to? The reasons are complex, but boil down to a system of complicity and perceived normality in Indigenous deaths at the hands of police and prisons. The settler Australian public simply does not see Indigenous deaths in custody as an act of violence, but as a co-morbidity.
The choice of language is important: it evokes a certain response in the reader and shapes our understandings of events. In the case of Palm Island, the often-repeated meta-narrative of so-called ‘dysfunctional’ and ‘lawless’ Aboriginal communities served to justify further acts of colonial violence.
In my 2018 pilot study on a sample of 134 Indigenous deaths in custody since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, I found coroners considered referring just 11 deaths to prosecutors and only ended up referring five. Of those, only two made it to court and both resulted in quashed indictments or acquittals.
These are monumental figures. They are also stories of deep systemic complicity, both before and after death. And they are full lives, with loved ones who mourn and fight for them.
The scale of devastation is unthinkable – and violent, and racist.
What makes Australian silence about deaths in custody so especially bizarre is that, unlike the US, we have a mandatory legal review of every death in custody or police presence. Each case, regardless of its circumstances, goes before a judge called a coroner.
Just as public political will is always changing, so is law and legal strategy. Compared to the campaigns for justice for black people killed by police in the US, which have made relative gains, many families here are working in a complex space of honouring their loved ones, proper cultural protocols around death and the dead, and securing CCTV footage to mobilise the public for justice.
Coroners have offered mixed responses, and each state and territory’s coroner approaches the question in a slightly different way.
After the death of Ms Dhu, a Yamatji woman, in police custody in Western Australia in 2014, persistent advocacy from the families and media organisations prompted the coroner to release footage of her treatment before her death. Coroner Ros Fogliani did so
in order to assist with the fair and accurate reporting of my findings on inquest.
However, last year, NSW deputy coroner Derek Lee initially declined to release footage showing the circumstances of Dungay’s death, citing cultural respect, sensitivity for his family and secrecy over prison procedures.
Members of Dungay’s family, who had applied to have it released, responded with exasperation. It was eventually shown on the opening day of the inquest, although the fuller footage requested by the family remains suppressed from public view.
Other ways families are silenced
There are other transparency issues that give a legal structure to silence about Indigenous deaths in custody. Recently, there appears to be a new push in non-publication or suppression orders being sought by state parties in coroners courts.
In Dungay’s inquest, for instance, the media was ordered not to publish the names, addresses or any other identifying features (including photographs) of 21 NSW corrections staff members.
There have been other suppression orders in deaths in custody matters before criminal courts, such as the identity of the officer facing a murder charge in the death of Yamatji woman Joyce Clarke in Western Australia last year.
Officers in South Australia are also going to some strategic effort to avoid testifying before the inquest into the death of Wayne Fella Morrison, a Wiradjuri, Kookatha and Wirangu man, or even speak with investigators on the grounds of penalty privilege.
investigations surrounding the cause of death in prisons can have a great impact for our grieving families to at least get an account of what happened to our loved ones in the absence of our care. It can also raise the spotlight on the behaviours of correctional and police officers – like those that piled atop of my brother’s body.
Outside of coroners courts, there is the threat of subjudice contempt, when media coverage may pose a prejudicial threat to a potential trial.
This carries a risk for families who speak out about their loved one’s deaths in a way that even implies something happened or someone did something. Subjudice contempt poses liability to them personally when they speak out, but also could jeopardise their push for justice.
This puts First Nations peoples at the mercy of what can be raised before a jury, judge or coroner. With lengthy procedural delays, this can also mean a case is hard to talk about publicly for years.
This is problematic given that timely publicity about deaths in custody is what drives attention. Taleah Reynolds, the sister of Nathan Reynolds, who died in custody in NSW in 2018, said,
We’re coming up to a year since he died and we still don’t know anything more.
I feel like they don’t have any remorse; they hide behind the system. No one’s held accountable, that’s the most frustrating part.
All of this leaves our public discourse full of blak bodies but curiously empty of people who put them there.
The power of public campaigning
Prosecution or referral seems to come only from cases where First Nations families have strong public advocacy and community groundswells behind them and strategic litigation resources (not just inquest legal aid).
As the late Wangerriburra and Birri Gubba leader Sam Watson said of the campaign for justice for the death of Mulrunji Doomagee on Palm Island:
Unfortunately, the government had to be dragged to this point screaming and kicking every inch of the way. Every time there’s been a breakdown in the procedure, the family and community on Palm Island are being subjected to more trauma, drama and unnecessary grandstanding by politicians.
Right now, three deaths are either before prosecutors or in their early stages of prosecution. All have been part of growing, public campaigns driven by their families and communities — although many others, like Dungay’s family, have done the same and still been faced with institutional complicity.
Clearly, there is much legal structure that supports this silence, but the basis of the silence itself is colonisation and white supremacy. As Amy McQuire writes:
Their wounds also testify to this violence. But while this footage has been important for mobilising Aboriginal people, non-Indigenous Australia is still complacent and apathetic.
They are not ‘outraged’ because they are not ‘shocked’. There is nothing shocking about racist violence perpetrated by police, because it is normalised.
When we do hear about the Indigenous lives lost in custody, it is undoubtedly because of the persistence, expertise and courage of their families and communities who mourn them. But it is not enough to hear about justice, justice must be done.
Both China and the United States have suffered reputational damage with the Australian public as a result of their handling of the coronavirus crisis, according to a Lowy COVIDpoll.
Most Australians (68%) say they feel “less favourable towards China’s system of government” when thinking about China’s handling of the outbreak.
Nearly seven in ten (69%) think China has dealt with it badly.
An overwhelming 90% believe the US has performed badly. The US is rated at the bottom of a list of six countries, also including Singapore, the United Kingdom and Italy, in how well COVID has been handled.
In contrast, 93% think Australia has done well so far.
Building on the anti-Trump feeling that showed up in earlier Lowy polling, 73% said they would prefer Democratic candidate Joe Biden to become president at the November election, compared 23% who want Donald Trump to be re-elected.
The poll of 3036 was done April 14-27.
It comes as trade relations with China have become increasingly tense this week with disputes over Australian exports of barley and beef. China has suspended imports from four abattoirs in Australia and threatened hefty tariffs on Australian barley.
Although the barley row has been going on some time, as have some of the beef complaints, the actions on both fronts are seen as retaliation for Australia pushing for a inquiry into the origin and handling of COVID-19.
As of late Wednesday trade minister Simon Birmingham had not been able to get in contact with his Chinese counterpart.
The trade difficulties are also generating domestic pressure.
On Wednesday Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said she was writing to Birmingham asking him to get a resolution to the beef dispute as soon as possible. She said thousands of Queensland jobs were involved.
Australia China Business Council CEO Helen Sawczak said: “To go out like a shag on a rock little Australia demanding an inquiry and insinuating blame was probably not a great foreign policy move.”
On the other hand some Coalition backbenchers have been taking strong public positions against China, complicating the government’s attempt to manage the disputes between the two countries.
In the Lowy poll, 37% said that when the world recovers from the crisis, China will be “more powerful” than it was before the crisis; 27% said it would be less powerful; 36% predicted no change. In 2009 in the wake of the global financial crisis 72% said China would be more powerful.
Just over half (53%) say the US will be less powerful; 41% predict no change; 6% believe American power will grow. In 2009 33% said the US would be less powerful than before.
Lowy’s Natasha Kassam, author of the Lowy report, said: “Despite Beijing’s efforts to shift the focus from its early mismanagement and coverup of the virus, to its apparent success in containment and providing support to struggling countries, Australians appear unconvinced.
“Australians’ views of China during the pandemic track with the previous downturn in sentiment towards China: in 2019, only a third of Australians said they trusted China, and the same number had confidence in China’s leader Xi Jinping to do the right thing in world affairs.
“As much as Australians have expressed disappointment in China’s handling of the outbreak, they are even more concerned by the response of the United States.
“While watching the current tragedy unfold in the United States, the competence and reliability of the United States is looming even larger as a question for Australians,” Kassam said.
In the poll, people gave a big thumbs up to Australian medical authorities and governments. More than nine in ten (92%) said they were confident the chief medical officers were doing a good job responding to the outbreak. The rating for states and territories was 86%, and 82% for the federal government. Confidence in the performance of the World Health Organisation was a much lower 59%.
Australians are not retreating from globalisation as a result of the crisis. Seven in 10 people say globalisation is “mostly good for Australia”. This is consistent with 2019.
Some 53% want “more global co-operation rather than every country putting their own interests first” in a global crisis.
A majority (59%) say they are just as likely to travel overseas as before, when COVID is contained.
Asked their preferred sources of information during the coronavirus outbreak (and allowed to choose up to three), 59% chose the Prime Minister and government officials, 50% government websites, 50% the ABC, 31% newspapers and news websites, 28% commercial, pay TV news and radio, 20% social media, and 5% word-of-mouth.
Chronic diseases such as respiratory diseases (including asthma), heart and circulatory diseases, high blood pressure, diabetes, kidney diseases and some cancers are more common in Indigenous people, and tend to occur at younger ages, than in non-Indigenous people.
These diseases, and the living conditions that contribute to them (such as poor nutrition, poor hygiene and lifestyle factors such as smoking), dramatically increase Indigenous people’s risk of being infected with coronavirus and for having more severe symptoms.
So Elders and those with chronic disease are vulnerable at any age.
We know from past pandemics, such as swine flu (H1N1), Indigenous Australians are more likely to become infected with respiratory viruses, and have more serious disease when they do.
So far, there have been 44 cases of coronavirus among Indigenous people, mostly in our major cities. We’re likely to see more in coming months.
This suggests the decision to close remote communities has been successful so far. But we also need to now focus on urban centres to prevent and manage further cases.
Current Australian government advice is for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people 50 years and over with existing health conditions to self-isolate. General government health advice tells all Australians to maintain good hygiene and seek health care when needed.
But this advice is easier said than done for many urban Indigenous people.
So what unique family and cultural needs and circumstances so we need to consider to reduce their risk of coronavirus?
This is particularly the case when it comes to infectious diseases, which thrive when too many people live together with poor hygiene (when it’s difficult for personal cleanliness, to keep clean spaces, wash clothes and cook healthy meals) and when people sleep in close contact.
Crowded accommodation also means increased exposure to passive smoking and other shared risky lifestyles.
Households are also more likely to be intergenerational, with many children and young people living with older parents and grandparents. This potentially increases the chances of the coronavirus spreading among and between households, infecting vulnerable older members.
Immediate solutions to prevent infection are, with guidance from Aboriginal organisations, to house people in these situations in safe emergency accommodation. But it is also an opportunity to work with Aboriginal organisations in the longer term to improve access to better housing to improve general health and well-being.
Poor health literacy
Indigenous Australians don’t always have access to good information about the coronavirus in formats that are easily understood and culturally appropriate.
The challenge is to get these distributed in urban centres urgently. These health messages should also be distributed in Aboriginal Medical Services waiting rooms and on Indigenous television and radio.
Poverty will limit some families’ ability to buy hand sanitiser, face masks, disinfectant and soap.
Although there are provisions for Indigenous Australians to receive free vaccines against the flu and pneumococcal disease to protect against lung disease, not all age groups are covered.
Scepticism of mainstream health services
Due to policies and racism that have marginalised Indigenous people, many do not use health and other services.
This is why Aboriginal Controlled Health Services are so important and successful in providing culturally sensitive and appropriate care.
However, there is concern these health services are not adequately funded or prepared to manage a coronavirus pandemic in urban centres.
They need more personal protective equipment (including masks). They also need more Aboriginal health workers, community nurses and others for testing and contact tracing.
What do governments need to do?
Some regions’ responses have been better than others.
In Western Australia, the urban-based Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Services (ACCHS) are working with key state government departments to coordinate the COVID-19 response. This includes guidance about how best to prevent and manage cases.
It’s time for other governments to set up collaborative arrangements with ACCHS and other Aboriginal controlled service organisations in urban centres to better manage the COVID-19 pandemic.
This should include more staff to:
help people self-isolate
explain and embed the digital COVID-19 media messages about hand washing, use of sanitisers and social distancing
enable accommodation that is acceptable and safe, especially for Elders and homeless people.
These services should also provide free flu and pneumococcal vaccinations.
Getting Indigenous health experts to lead this defence is clearly the way to go. We must listen and respond to these leaders to implement effective strategies immediately. If ever there was an opportunity to demonstrate that giving Indigenous people a voice to manage their own futures is effective, it is this.
Our hope is that, after this pandemic, the value of Aboriginal control will be recognised as the best way to improve Aboriginal health and well-being.
This article was co-authored by Adrian Carson, Institute for Urban Indigenous Health; Donisha Duff, Institute for Urban Indigenous Health; Francine Eades, Derbarl Yerrigan Health Service; and Lesley Nelson, South West Aboriginal Medical Service.
Many newspapers betrayed their readers during the Great Depression and now some are doing so again during the coronavirus pandemic.
During the Depression, Australia’s major daily newspapers loudly resisted calls for economic stimulus to revive the economy. Even the tabloids – whose working class audiences were feeling the full brunt of unemployment – campaigned instead for government spending cuts that hit their readers hard.
Self-interest was behind this. The companies and individuals behind Australia’s most popular daily newspapers in the early 1930s were bondholders who had lent enormous sums of money to Australian governments before the Depression. So had banks, trustee and life insurance companies that were allied with newspaper owners, and also major newspaper advertisers. If Australian governments had not made severe cuts to spending and instead injected money into the economy through welfare and job creation projects, they would not have been able to pay back their debts. Domestic bondholders would have lost millions in interest payments.
Now, we see some news outlets again betraying their readers by prioritising business over public health.
In the Murdoch News Corp/Fox Corporation stable in the US, Fox News downplayed the spread of the virus for as long as it could. Its presenters ridiculed predictions about its impact as coming from “panic pushers” and liberals out to damage Trump, while the Wall Street Journal editorialised that shutdowns might be safeguarding public health but “at the cost of its economic health”. Trump jumped on cue and began spouting the same shameful rhetoric that the cure might be worse than the disease because of its economic impact. He wanted Americans back to work by Easter.
Murdoch’s Sun in the UK represented shutdowns there with a bleak front page calling them “HOUSE ARREST” and showing a padlock over the Union Jack.
In the Murdoch outlets in Australia, these views are being faithfully reproduced by Andrew Bolt of the Herald Sun and Sky News. Bolt’s column on March 30 was headed “Aussies should be back at work in two weeks”.
During the Great Depression, the mainstream press strongly reflected the economic conservatism of bankers, economists and business leaders. The most vehement outlets were the Argus and the Herald in Melbourne, the Sydney Morning Herald and the Daily Telegraph in Sydney, the Mercury in Hobart, and the Brisbane Telegraph and Brisbane Courier. They attacked the Scullin Labor government’s plan to reflate the economy through government stimulus as “economic insanity”, “a dangerous experiment”, “grotesque and menacing”.
But in a turn of phrase that even those papers might have found too hysterical, Bolt recently described economic stimulus packages during coronavirus as “Marxism”. This is despite the fact that economic stimulus is now so widely accepted as part of a mainstream economic toolkit that conservative politicians are using it in Australia, the UK and the US.
Sky News host Alan Jones has also downplayed the virus, saying “we are living in the age of hysteria” and that he wants to see the emphasis placed on protecting people “in nursing homes and hospitals instead of schools and football stadiums”.
Right-wing commentators – presumably working from home themselves – are keen to get everyone back to work in the midst of a pandemic, even though the medical advice says otherwise.
The usual pretence that they are on the side of their audience falls away at a time of crisis. They are representing the interests of business – particularly their own.
Media companies that were already financially fragile are extremely worried about coronavirus. The sudden halt to business has meant the loss of advertising revenue, possibly for a long period, but also the loss of reader income. This means people have less to spend on media and on buying advertisers’ products.
Combined with this is the dramatic loss of sport (of vital importance to the struggling Foxtel, Kayo Sports and tabloid newspapers) and also the end of house auctions when real estate sections and real estate websites were one of the few remaining bright spots for the newspaper groups. The bread-and-butter events that newspapers cover, from entertainment and leisure to restaurant and movies, have stopped, and nobody knows for how long.
These are unprecedented and menacing threats to commercial media groups. At News Corp, there is the added pressure of a transition in leadership from the 89-year-old Rupert Murdoch to his son, Lachlan Murdoch, a less tested – and less trusted – leader who is unlikely to have the business nous of his father or even his grandfather, Keith Murdoch.
As a journalist and editor, Keith Murdoch was one of those who promoted business interests during the Depression. Rupert’s father was also a vehement conscriptionist during the first and second world wars. Although Keith never signed up for military service himself, he propagandised, almost obsessively, for conscription and called on other men to make a sacrifice for a greater cause.
We need to beware the media commentators of today, anti-science and anti-expertise armchair generals, who likewise call on their fellow citizens to do things they won’t do themselves.
At this stage, it is not clear to what extent facilities at Saudi Arabia’s main refinery have been crippled, but initial reports indicate it could be weeks and possibly months before it is brought back into full production.
Australia’s former foreign minister, Julie Bishop, has offered to intervene with the Iranian authorities in an attempt to secure the release of the Australian nationals being held in Tehran.
These include Mark Firkin and his UK-Australian girlfriend, Jolie King. The two were arrested earlier this year for the unauthorised flying of a drone near a military facility on the outskirts of Tehran. They have not been charged.
More serious at this stage, however, is the case of Melbourne University Middle East specialist and joint UK-Australia citizen Kylie Moore-Gilbert, who was detained in October 2018. She has been sentenced to 10 years in jail.
Iran has not publicly announced details of charges against her.
The cases of Moore-Gilbert, Firkin and King have, inevitably and unhelpfully, become enmeshed in wider geopolitical tensions in which Iran is fighting back against a US sanctions regime that seeks to cripple its economy.
Iran is being accused of “hostage diplomacy” by resorting to the incarceration of foreign nationals at a time when sanctions are rendering enormous damage to its oil-exporting economy.
While Australian officials insist Canberra’s decision to commit to a US-led mission to protect ships travelling through the Strait of Hormuz is unconnected to the detention of its citizens, Tehran has a history of using individuals ruthlessly as bargaining chips in a wider geopolitical game.
Hostage taking, or “hostage diplomacy”, has a lengthy tail in the history of the Islamic Republic going back to the November 4, 1979, seizure of the American embassy in Tehran and a siege that ensued for 444 days. Fifty-two Americans were held hostage for more than a year.
More recently, Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian was held in Iran for 544 days before being released with three other Iranian-Americans as part of a prisoner swap in 2016, just before economic sanctions on Iran were lifted under the terms of the nuclear deal.
Saudi Arabia and its Yemeni government allies have been engaged in a vicious conflict with Houthi rebels since 2015. Thousands have been killed, and many more displaced, in what is regarded as the most serious humanitarian crisis in the world today.
Iran is supporting the Houthis and is widely accused of fuelling the Yemen conflict to weaken Saudi Arabia.
In other words, the gulf and its environs are primed for worsening conflict unless the US and Iran can reach an accommodation that would enable an easing of sanctions.
President Donald Trump has been angling for a face-to-face meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the upcoming United Nations General Assembly to address ways in which tensions could be eased.
Attacks on Saudi Arabian oil facilities – and, thus, the global economy – hardly provides a favourable environment for discussions that might, or might not, take place.
Meanwhile, the Australian government finds itself in a situation where it has limited leverage. Trade between Australia and Iran is negligible and holds little promise as long as sanctions remain in place. Canberra’s decision to join a US-led mission in the Middle East means that it is now identified with Washington’s “maximum pressure” approach.
Australia is one of three countries to have signed up to the US initiative. The others are Britain and Bahrain.
Iran made repeated representations to secure the release of Negar Ghodskani after her arrest in 2017. She has pleaded guilty to conspiring to facilitate the illegal export of technology from the US and faces a hefty fine and jail time.
This is a tangled web, and hardly likely to become less so.
The attitudes of Australians towards China have soured dramatically in the past year, according to the Lowy Institute’s annual poll released on Wednesday.
Only 32% trust China to act responsibly in the world – which is a drop of 20 points from the 2018 poll and the lowest level in the 15 years of the poll.
Despite this, more Australians have confidence in China’s President Xi Jinping than have confidence in United States President Donald Trump.
Only 25% have confidence in Trump to do the right thing in world affairs (down five points since 2018), compared with 30% for Xi (a fall of 13 points since last year). Among those aged 18-29, none expressed “a lot” of confidence in Trump and 66% had “no confidence at all” in him.
The poll was done March 12-25, of 2130 people.
The results come as Scott Morrison, ahead of attending the G20 in Japan later this week, will address Australia’s relations with China, the increasing US-China tensions and the changing regional power balance in a major foreign policy speech on Wednesday.
He will say that while Australia will be “clear-eyed” about the fact political differences will affect aspects of its engagement with China, “we are determined that our relationship not be dominated by areas of disagreement.”
Lowy senior fellow Richard McGregor, who has previously reported as a journalist from Beijing, said the relentless coverage of China’s political system, allegations of interference in Australia’s politics, and its poor relations with its neighbours “seems to have finally registered” with the Australian public.
The results for China might have been worse if it were not for the Trump factor muddying the picture, he said. “There’s a recognition that we’re in for a much tougher time with China, and that’s accurate,” McGregor said.
On the Lowy “feelings thermometer” Australians’ feelings towards China have cooled nine degrees to 49 degrees since 2018, while their feelings towards the US have fallen four degrees to 63 degrees. The US rates behind both New Zealand and the United Kingdom.
Lowy says: “In 2019, trust in and warmth towards China are at their lowest point” in its poll’s history.
“Most Australians say that Australia’s economy is too dependent on China and Australia should do more to resist China’s military activities in our region. Scepticism continues about Chinese investment in Australia and China’s intention in the Pacific.”
Nearly three quarters (74%) agree “Australia is too economically dependent on China”. Almost half (49%) say foreign interference in Australian politics is “a critical threat” to Australia’s vital interests – a rise of eight points from last year.
Some 77% believe “Australia should do more to resist China’s military activities in our region”. This is up 11 points since 2015. Six in ten people would support the Australian military conducting freedom of navigation operations in the South China sea.
There remains high concern about Chinese investment, with 68% saying the government is “allowing too much investment from China”, although this is a little lower than the 72% high point of last year.
Reflecting Australians’ mixed feelings as the country balances its relations with the US and China, 50% believe the government “should put a higher priority on maintaining strong relations with the United States, even if this might harm our relations with China”.
But 44% believe it should “put a higher priority on building stronger relations with China, even if this might harm our relations with the United States”.
With Australia’s policy pivot towards the Pacific being driven in substantial part by China’s expanding interest and influence in the region, 55% think that “if China opened a military base in a Pacific island country” this would be “a critical threat” to Australia’s interests. 73% agree “Australia should try to prevent China from increasing its influence in the Pacific” – although views are split about spending more money there.
When people were asked about their confidence in nine leaders, New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern rated highest – 88% have a lot or some confidence in her. Behind her are Scott Morrison (58%), then opposition leader Bill Shorten (52%), Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo (34%), Xi (30%), Trump and Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi (both on 25%. “This means President Trump is only ahead of Russia’s Vladimir Putin (21%) and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un (7%),” Lowy said.
The Trump factor has complicated attitudes to the US but the alliance retains overwhelming support with 72% saying it is very or fairly important for Australia’s security (down four points in a year). But 66% think Trump has weakened the alliance and only 52% trust the US to act responsibly in the world. This is little changed from last year but the lowest trust in the US since the question was first asked in 2006 and 31 points lower than in 2009.
In other results:
climate change is rated highest among the threats to Australia’s vital interests. Nearly two thirds (64%) rated it as a “critical threat”, up six points since last year and 18 points since 2014.
75% say free trade is good for their own standard of living, and 71% believe it is good for Australia’s economy.
47% (a fall of seven points since 2018) say the number of migrants coming is too high.
When the Australian constitution was written in the 1890s, the authors did not envision an independent nation, but a self-governing dominion of the British empire. As such, the preamble does not contain flowery language about national values. Instead it is a dry, legalistic introduction simply noting that some of her majesty’s “possessions” have federated. One unsuccessful attempt to change it was made in a 1999 referendum.
In March 2019, 120 high school students from around Australia met in Canberra for the 24th National Schools Constitutional Convention. Their mission was to write a new preamble, with the authors of this article serving as facilitators. Over two days of lively debate, sometimes heated but always civil, a final version was drafted.
In a referendum-style vote, a majority of students and a majority from each state ratified the preamble (83 “yes”, 34 “no”, two voted informal, one abstained). The students’ preamble was presented to the federal Senate on April 2 and entered into Hansard.
The students’ preamble
We the Australian people, united as an indissoluble Commonwealth, commit ourselves to the principles of equality, democracy and freedom for all and pledge to uphold the following values that define our nation.
We stand alongside the traditional custodians of the land and recognise the significance of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures in shaping the Australian identity, their sovereignty was never ceded.
As a nation and indeed community, we are united under the common goal to create a society catered to all, regardless of heritage or identity.
We pledge to champion individual freedom and honour those who have served and continue to serve our nation.
As Australians, we stand for the pursuit of a democratic state that upholds the fundamental principles of human values as set out by this Constitution.
The student’s preamble differs enormously from the one written in the 19th century. It is noteworthy that it includes the words “democratic” and “freedom” twice – neither are in the current preamble or the constitution. From the students’ preamble, three elements emerge that young people want to see enshrined.
Acknowledging First Nations
During the debates, the most contested issue was whether to explicitly recognise First Nations people and if so, how. Ultimately, the students, including a representative group of Indigenous students, voted strongly in favour of constitutional recognition. In particular, the phrase “sovereignty was never ceded” is significant.
It is a rallying cry for many First Nations people and a rejection of assimilation. Indigenous Australians are still fighting for self-determination and the right to be heard. The Voice to Parliament put forward by the Uluru Statement is still being debated. Constitutional recognition that sovereignty was never ceded is a more radical proposal. It suggests that Indigenous justice is important to young Australians.
Egalitarianism is still key
The egalitarian ideal has a long history in Australia. The concept of the “fair go” is mythical in one sense, but a cherished part of the collective imagination.
The first line of the students’ preamble commits the nation to the principle of equality. The third line stresses the importance of a “society catered to all”.
Although not explicitly stated, the word “identity” suggests the LGBT community was in mind. Young Australians overwhelmingly supported the same-sex marriage plebiscite in 2017. The government is currently considering new religious freedom laws in response to the sacking of Israel Folau by Rugby Australia.
It is significant, then, that young Australians place such value on society being catered for all, “regardless of heritage or identity”.
What permeates through the students’ preamble is the message that values matter. Unlike the original constitutional writers, young people want their preamble to be a mission statement that articulates the “values that uphold the nation”. The trident of “equality, democracy and freedom” are highlighted.
The preamble also notes the twin priorities of a free state that sit together though sometimes in tension. As the third line notes, Australia is a “nation and indeed community”. But the fourth line tempers this with a commitment to “champion individual freedom”. The ideal democratic state for these young Australians places value on both the individual and the collective.
Time for change?
At the 1999 referendum, Prime Minister John Howard, despite being against a republic, campaigned in favour of a new preamble. The one he and republican Les Murray authored did not gain much popularity. But it is significant that even an ardent monarchist like Howard was convinced the preamble needed to be updated.
The authors of the students’ preamble were mainly in Year 11 and too young to vote in the May election. Nevertheless, they are thoughtful, intelligent citizens and the future of our democracy. Their voice is worth listening to.