Grass-reports populism backed by hard-right ideologues
03 Oct 2010

Frank Rich in the New York Times on the billionaires running the Tea Party movement:

Election Day is now only a month away. The demoralized Democrats are held hostage by the unemployment numbers. And along comes this marvelous gift out of nowhere, Christine O’Donnell, Tea Party everywoman, who just may be the final ingredient needed to camouflage a billionaires’ coup as a populist surge. By the time her fans discover that any post-election cuts in government spending will be billed to them, and not the Tea Party’s shadowy backers, she’ll surely be settling her own debts with fat paychecks from “Fox & Friends.”


Telling Obama to shove his wars where the sun don’t shine
03 Oct 2010

Late last week U.S. military veterans hung an enormous banner on the front of the Newseum in Washington, DC, wrapping their message around the First Amendment.
Several Veterans for Peace dropped the banner down the front of the Newseum, while others distributed special edition copies of the War Crimes Times, explaining the action and what they considered obscene.
National President of VFP Mike Ferner, 59, who served as a navy corpsman during Vietnam said:
“The American public should be shocked that we are still killing and crippling thousands of innocent people in these countries as well as our own soldiers — that’s what’s truly obscene. Blowing people’s arms and legs off, burning, paralyzing them, causing sewage to run through their streets, polluting the water that kills and sickens children, terrorizing and bombing people and their livestock with flying robots– that defines obscenity. If this banner shocks and offends a single person who hasn’t been shocked and offended by what’s being done in our name, we’ve accomplished our mission.”


The massive threat of a non-violent peace activist
03 Oct 2010

Gideon Levy in Haaretz writes in customary fiery fashion (and check out the recent Independent feature on this truly remarkable and unique man) about his country’s seemingly daily descent into deeper intolerance:

The photograph was recently distributed by the IDF’s propagandists: Mairead Corrigan-Maguire is seen being taken off the abducted ship Rachel Corrie at Ashdod port, as a soldier from the world’s most moral army holds out his hand to help the honorable woman disembark. It was not long after the IDF’s violent takeover of the Mavi Marmara, and Israeli propagandists were now hastening to peddle their cheap merchandise, showing how Israel treats “real” peace activists, as opposed to the Turkish “terrorists” on the earlier vessel.
Only four months have passed since the earlier event, and the very same lady has now spent a weekend in the deportees’ cell at Ben-Gurion Airport. While we were having another warm, pleasant weekend, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate sat in an Israeli jail and nobody seemed to care. We were not ashamed, we were not outraged, we did not make a sound. It was a spectacle that could only have taken place in Israel, North Korea, Burma (Myanmar ) and Iran – the state imprisoning and deporting a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize – and raised no more than a yawn here.
One court has already upheld the deportation, in a characteristically automatic action, and the Supreme Court will debate it today.
The new Israel is once again portrayed as an indrawn, detestable state, with a branch of the thought police at Ben-Gurion Airport. World-renowned intellectuals such as Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein, Spain’s most famous clown Ivan Prado and now Mairead Corrigan-Maguire, are deported from it shamefacedly only because they dared to visit the country. And all this is backed by pathological public indifference.


Outsourcing detention centres open to mental and physical abuse
03 Oct 2010

The following article is in this week’s Green Left Weekly newspaper:

During recent protests in Villawood Detention Centre that followed the September 20 suicide of detained Fijian exile Josefa Rauluni, detainees who tried to help rooftop protesters with water and blankets were stopped by security. One man was bashed.
Hunger strikers were kept quiet in order to avoid publicity. The 12-day hunger strike by 16 Iranian and Kurdish asylum seekers in Villawood was called off on September 29. In a major concession, immigration officers told the hunger strikers that their cases would be reviewed and that they would have a definite answer to their claims within three months.
Many of the men, who were not even taking water, remain in a critical condition.
A group of 40 people from the Fijian community were denied entry to the detention centre to hold a memorial service for Josefa. Instead, they held a protest memorial outside the gates.
These events have highlighted the problems with mandatory detention, as well as the role of Serco, the private contractor that manages Australia’s detention centres. Green Left Weekly’s Aaron Roden interviewed Antony Loewenstein, independent journalist and author, who is working on a book about privatisation.
What can you tell us about Serco?
Serco have tentacles all over the world, in the US, UK and Australia. They run a lot of the British detention centres, including the notorious Yarlwood. There have been numerous reports from government, media and human rights abuse groups, detailing the kinds of abuse that goes on, particularly with children.
They also have a lot of work with the US government and military and the National Security Agency (NSA). They run a lot of things and yet they also are very much under the radar. I think the average person wouldn’t know they exist, who they are, what they do.
In Australia, they run all these detention centres. And they run a number of private prisons.
Of course, the detention centre question here is increasingly relevant, not just because of the human rights abuses that occur, but because the Australian government is expanding them. We know they’re expanding Curtin, they’re building a centre of sorts in Cape York.
Whenever you read about these happenings, and it’s been talked about in the media in the last few months, you don’t read about is actually who’s running these places — it’s run by Serco. The company is run by a Pentecostal Christian, Christopher Hyman.
He’s made a number of comments over the years about “doing God’s work”, so you can’t help but think about his Christian philosophy. Not unlike how Erik Prince, the head of [military contractor company] Blackwater, talks about his organisation, which is somehow doing God’s work on Earth.
The role of companies like Serco and the idea of governments outsourcing human life to essentially unaccountable multinationals should concern us.
You talked to the immigration department, and they said Serco had a contractual agreement where they would only speak publicly on a “fairly substantial issue”. Recent events at Villawood have included a suicide, rooftop protests and hunger strikes — would you describe this as a “substantial issue” that Serco should respond to?
Well, personally, absolutely yes. But, apparently, contractually no. The problem we have with this is the contract between the Labor government and Serco has not been fully released — so called commercial confidence.
Whenever you read about something going wrong in a detention centre, you rarely if ever hear Serco’s spokesperson say anything. It’s always taken by the immigration department, which is clearly what the contract states. There is a desire from Serco to not have to be in the public gaze.
And the only example that was given was a few weeks ago, Serco supposedly needed to respond, according to the immigration department, when it was revealed Serco was bringing in a number of foreign staff because they were overwhelmed with the amount of work they needed to do in detention centres here. Serco did make a very brief comment about that, but very, very brief.
I think it’s a fundamental problem that, when you outsource detention centres or prisons or human life, essentially, you need to be able to as a society, as individuals, as journalists, as the detainees themselves, as parliament for that matter, in a truly democratic system … there needs to be accountability with individuals and companies who are managing these people.
At the moment, I would argue there’s very little. Serco says: “We can’t comment, speak to the immigration department”, and the department makes a very bland statement and then says speak to Serco.
In other words, it’s a circular situation here. I think the real concern of that relationship is that there needs to be far greater scrutiny of the relationship between the government and Serco.
Also, now the government is asking Serco to expand a lot of these centres, that can probably only increase in the coming years, as Australia makes the definite choice to maintain mandatory detention and not actually manage refugees in a humane way. That means Serco can make more money. The contract that was signed came to about $400 million.
In all likelihood, now Serco is required to do more, they’re going to be paid more. And yet, we don’t know exactly how much, we don’t know where that money’s coming from, we don’t know anything about it.
[There are] reports from within these centres themselves about some of the mistreatment in there. I’m not suggesting that every person who works for Serco is an evil person, I don’t think that for a second. The system under which a lot of these individuals work fundamentally lacks transparency.
And this happened under the Howard years when ACM managed detention centres. It’s been on the record for a while now: massive abuses went on then.
The system was often set up in such a way that problems were deliberately allowed to fester so that the company at the time could go to the government demanding [more] money to manage the problems that they’d allowed to happen in the first place. That’s what’s happening again now, and there’s no reason why it wouldn’t in a way, because there’s nothing stopping it.
You said the government is outsourcing services. Would you say the government is also trying to outsource responsibility?
Absolutely. The government in some ways doesn’t want to manage this problem — and it doesn’t make a difference whether it’s Labor or Liberal in power. And you could argue the immigration department has developed in such a way since the ’90s (when the Howard government privatised this system) that they are actually incapable of managing it right now.
The truth is whenever the government speaks about these issues … whenever they talk about immigration detention, Serco never gets talked about. It’s absent, and that’s deliberate. It’s very, very deliberate.
The immigration department is very happy to palm off responsibility. Then even if something goes wrong, in the contract it allows them to then fine Serco for those problems.
So, the relationship essentially is that the government doesn’t have to worry about the problem. Serco then pays them the minimal fine, and the government continues relying on Serco in expanding their responsibilities. This is what’s happening at the moment, without any checks and balances.
Of course the immigration minister and department do go before parliament to answer questions. Serco, of course, doesn’t have to appear. They’re a private organisation.
So, in the so-called democratic parliament, again, the company actually running these places, gets off scot free and the government I think is very happy about that.
If these things happened in government run facilities, there might be calls for an inquiry. Do you see that happening with Serco’s privately managed detention?
In the short term, I think there will absolutely not be an investigation. I don’t see any move towards it. I don’t see any media pressure for it. And one of the things I talk about is, the media here is culpable too.
In so many of the media reports regarding detention, Serco doesn’t get mentioned. They might get mentioned in passing at best.
There was that Sydney Morning Herald article about Serco [on September 24], but it didn’t say anything new. The average person might not have known about Serco, I guess that was doing a public service, so to speak, to let people know, but there was no investigation.
There was no real discussion or analysis or pressure on Serco, the response was: we asked Serco questions, there was no comment, end of story. Well, that’s not good enough.
So, there definitely should be an investigation, there should be some inquiry. But there won’t be.
For example, there have been numerous inquiries, from government and from human rights groups, and they found Serco in breach of numerous human rights regulations.
Yet nothing changes. The government still relies on Serco and abuses still occur in detention centres. So, having inquiries doesn’t necessarily solve the problem.
It’s an ideological fundamentalism, a belief by government across both political divides, and indeed many in the media, that privatising and outsourcing is the new wonderful god, and we should bow down before that god, and everything becomes far more efficient and cheaper. It’s complete bollocks, of course, and there’s numerous examples.
There’s evidence that suggests that when you have people’s lives at stake and someone like Serco is running detention centres like prisons, because that’s essentially what they’ve become, then unsurprisingly, abuses occur.
Do you think the refugee rights movement should concentrate more on the issue of private contractors managing detention? Does that detract from the main issue of mandatory detention?
I certainly think they should. I don’t see why the refugee rights community can’t do both. I’ve spoken to a number of these groups over the last month and will continue to do so.
More often they seem disturbed over the role of Serco and others, but for some reason I can’t claim to know, they haven’t pushed this as much. I would argue they should.
I think this is an important issue [for a number of reasons]. First, it affects the conditions of the people [the refugee rights movement are] campaigning for. Second, Serco operates worldwide, so [activists] can connect it to abuses in Britain and elsewhere.
Third, there’s no accountability. Fourth, there’s no media coverage at all, and in the current situation it’s something that would get coverage.
For example, in the Howard years, [there was] evidence of abuses committed by detention staff. There’s lots of evidence for that. And it’s an increasing problem, with the growing number of Australian prisons being outsourced to Serco and other private operators
So, I would encourage refugee groups to focus, not to the exclusion of everything else, but to equally focus on Serco, because they are often as responsible for these abuses as the government.
In conclusion?
Again it goes back to the bigger picture issues. It’s the increasing outsourcing and privatisation of numerous elements in life. Prisons, detention centres, military outsourcing, numerous areas.
It’s not just about detention centres, and of course, for many in the media and the political elite, privatisation is a good thing and should be encouraged, it should be accelerated in fact.
Whereas some journalists may well be sceptical about it, many newspapers — in fact most of the mainstream press in Australia — celebrate privatisation. They see it as a good thing, they celebrate it.
As the powers that be in the media are supportive of that kind of ideology … then it’s difficult to get them to examine, in a deeper sense, [the current] shift in society from the public to the private space.


On my way to Indonesia
 02 Oct 2010

For the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in Bali. I’m invited again this year (after an amazing 2009 Indonesian book tour) and look forward to discussing politics, prose, passion and power.
More very soon.


Blackwater powers on (and leaves dead bodies way behind)
02 Oct 2010

Who says a company causing death and destruction should be a barrier to securing US deals?

Never mind the dead civilians. Forget about the stolen guns. Get over the murder arrests, the fraud allegations, and the accusations of guards pumping themselves up with steroids and cocaine. Through a “joint venture,” the notorious private-security firm Blackwater has won a piece of a five-year State Department contract worth up to $10 billion, Danger Room has learned.

Roll up for handy tips about the Israel project
02 Oct 2010

Zionist students, learn how to defend Israel in all its beauty:
Meeting Alan Dershowitz in Sydney
02 Oct 2010

Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz is currently in Sydney for the Festival of Dangerous Ideas and last night debated, in front of 2000 people at the Sydney Opera House, lawyer Geoffrey Robertson on The Sins of the Father; Should the Pope be Held to Account? over the massive number of child sex abuse cases. Robertson called for legal action while Dershowitz urged understanding of a “changed” Vatican.
Dershowitz has received relatively friendly media interviews in Australia (here and here) and his obsession with Israel is simply seen as an extension of a lifetime commitment to human rights. “The problem with Israel is that it’s too democratic”, he said last week on local radio.
After last night’s event I attended an after-party where Dershowitz made an appearance. I wanted to speak to him about his views on the Middle East. Our exchange lasted around five minutes, alongside his wife, and I began, after introducing myself as a journalist, by asking him if he would ever back boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel. He said he would only do so after every other human rights abuse was condemned around the world “and Israel is the 177th on the list.” He wanted to know why there was such a focus on Israel at the expense of China, Africa and the Arab world.
But what if Israeli behaviour won’t change without serious external pressure, I countered. BDS would never be the solution, Dershowitz argued, because Israel “is a democracy”. He acknowledged that the Netanyahu government, with a far-right coalition, wasn’t the best placed to convince the world of the Jewish state’s seriousness towards peace “but I’ve known Netanyahu for many years and he recently asked me to be Israeli ambassador to the UN but I refused.”
“Tzipi Livni [Israel’s opposition leader] asked me to have dinner with her in Boston this Monday but I’ll still be in Australia.” He seemed to believe that peace was possible if she entered the coalition with Netanyahu.
I then asked if he feared BDS would continue to grow in international power. He thought it would. And then, after mentioning the current moves by the University of Johannesburg to end its relationship with the Israeli university, Ben-Gurion, unless certain conditions are met, he unloaded: “Archbishop Desmond Tutu is one of the most evil men in the world. He never condemns China, rarely Zimbabwe or any other county, it’s only Israel. I was once in the same room as him and he said Israeli actions were ‘unChristian.’”
Tutu recently eloquently explained why Israeli behaviour in Palestine required a strong global response.
This was the Dershowitz I had expected, ferocious, irrational and utterly unwilling to allow anyone to condemn Israeli actions (something Jimmy Carter knows all about, saying in 2008 that there’s a “special place in hell for somebody like that.”)
It was a short but revealing encounter with a man who must wonder how the world has increasingly lost patience with Israeli excuses for violence and colonisation. Even during his presentation about the Pope, he regularly mentioned Israel and its supposedly democratic ways. And, in 2010, the groups in the world most in love with Israel are Christian fundamentalists, far-right politicians in Europe and Orthodox Jews. That’s quite a motley collection of friends.


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