Selective silence: Cory Bernardi, the "threat" of Islam and the Royal Commission

Senator Cory Bernardi’s announcement that he’s finally quitting the Liberal Party and starting his own conservative political movement has dominated news headlines and social media this week. The far-right Senator’s new Australian Conservatives party will attempt to capitalise on the rise in populist anti-immigration sentiment epitomised by Brexit, the election of Donald Trump and the domestic resurgence of One Nation.

Besides combating the prospect of same-sex marriage and campaigning to water down the Racial Discrimination Act, it’s likely the Australian Conservatives will have plenty to say on another of Bernardi’s favourite topics: Islam, or the supposed threat it poses to Australian society.

Bernardi has asserted that Islam is a “totalitarian, political and religious ideology”, called for the burqa to be banned as a “shroud of oppression”, and waged a long crusade against the halal certification of food. On Friday he’ll appear as a ‘special guest’ at a function thrown by the anti-Islamic Q Society, which has been at the forefront of efforts to stop the construction of a mosque in the Victorian town of Bendigo. In 2015 Bernardi alleged that terrorists could be among Australia’s planned intake of 12,000 Syrian refugees, despite all evidence suggesting such a scenario is extremely unlikely.

But even as Bernardi commanded the spotlight, far more concerning and devastating news has been coming out of Sydney, where the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was beginning its 50th public hearing.

In her opening statement to the hearing on Monday, counsel assisting the commission Gail Furness, SC, revealed some of the Commission’s horrifying findings on the scope and severity of child sexual abuse within religious institutions, especially the Catholic Church. According to the Commission, 4,444 people alleged instances of child sex abuse against members of 93 Catholic Church authorities between 1980 and 2015.

Even more astonishing than the number of victims is the number of abusers, particularly in Catholic orders. Around 20% of the membership of two Catholic orders that run schools, the Christian Brothers and the Marist Brothers, were accused of crimes against children. In one order, the St John of God Brothers, more than 40% of religious brothers were alleged to have abused kids.

But one figure especially stands out, arguably the most horrific of all. 7% of all Australian Catholic priests since 1950 have been accused of child sexual abuse. That’s about one in every 14 priests.

It’s worth looking at how those numbers compare to Bernardi’s pet obsession, Islam and domestic terrorism. 476,291 Australians self-identified as Muslim at the 2011 Census. The exact number of Australian Muslims charged with terror offences isn’t publicly available for security reasons, but a widely-cited Monash University study from 2011 puts the number at between 20 and 33. That means around 0.0069% of Muslims in Australia have been charged with terror-related offences, at least as of 2011. One in every 14,000 or so Muslims, in other words.

Putting those two sets of numbers side by side raises some interesting questions about who we’re told poses a threat to Australian society, and who actually does. If 7% of Australian Muslims were alleged terror suspects, that would mean a massive 33,340 would-be Islamist terrorists were currently residing in Australia. To put that in perspective, imagine if everyone in the NSW town of Orange woke up one day and decided that, rather than throw an Elvis festival this year, they’ll all join ISIS instead. Bernardi would certainly have his work cut out for him.

Despite what Bernardi, Pauline Hanson and many others say, though, you could fit all the Australian Muslims charged with terror offences pretty comfortably in the back half of a tram. So which is the greater threat? One in every 14,000 Muslims? Or one in every 14 priests? And which will Bernardi’s new Australian Majority focus most of its attention on?

Given the timing, it will be extremely interesting to see if newly-independent Senator Bernardi says a word about the Royal Commission’s findings, or if he continues to talk up a comparatively miniscule threat for the sake of headlines and political capital. Given the Vatican has refused to hand over documents involving Australian priests accused of abuse to the Royal Commission, it will also be instructive to see if Bernardi feels compelled to demand greater accountability from the Church of which he is a devout member.

For the rest of us, it might be worth wondering why we obsess over threats that we rarely see and almost never directly encounter, rather than the ones right in front of us. If we’d spent the last sixty years paying even a fraction of the attention to child abusers in the Catholic Church that we devote to Islamist terrorism today, that 7% wouldn’t have been able to wreak the horrendous damage that they did.

What It Really Means For Men To "Say No" To Violence Against Women

Recently I've been thinking a lot about the national conversation around domestic violence, and what it means for men who want to be part of the solution, while not necessarily recognising ways in which they may be part of the problem. At the moment, individual 'action' for men consists of broadly positive, impersonal statements or sentiments -- it might involve signing a petition, taking a White Ribbon pledge, posting a selfie or going to an anti-domestic violence round of the cricket or footy.

These actions, while well-intentioned, miss an extremely important point that many men don't consider. The biggest and most immediate priority for men who say they're against domestic and sexual violence is to recognise that men they know and care about are entirely capable of being harassers and abusers, and that they have an obligation to proactively and vigorously confront those men -- friends, family members, coworkers -- on their behaviour.

That sounds easy, but it's not. "Saying no to violence against women" is easy when the guy doing it is some vague, hypothetical Other in your head, or a drunken yob who fits your preconceptions of what a violent man looks like.

But when you hear on the grapevine that a friend of yours creeps on women at parties, or that the girlfriend he's always fighting with has bruises, and you ignore it or make excuses like "but he's a really good guy," you are not being neutral or "staying out of it".

Because other men in your circle are doing it too -- defending him, saying "it's complicated", grimacing slightly before shrugging it off. It's the textbook example of how decent, regular people come to be supporters and protectors of abuse. Individual silences that coalesce into a larger unspoken understanding -- a conspiracy of collective inaction that acts as a protective buffer around a man's violent, criminal behaviour. That is not neutral. That is aiding and abetting.

As recounted late last year by Brydie-Lee Kennedy for SBS Comedy and Kara Schlegl for The Saturday Paper, a real-life example of this phenomenon recently played out in Sydney's comedy community. A successful young comedian, who is not named in either article, was known to his friends and colleagues as being a serial abuser of women, especially of Kennedy, his one-time partner. Those friends and colleagues -- all fellow up-and-coming comedians, self-styled 'aware' and 'progressive' young men who said all the right things -- ignored what was clearly going on in front of them, choosing instead to isolate, belittle and ignore the women their friend abused. Even when the situation came to light in Kennedy's piece, many refused to countenance the possibility that their friend was an abuser. Read those two articles for a better picture than I can provide here.

Clearly this phenomenon of men talking a big game about opposing domestic violence while simultaneously wearing blinkers to instances of it in their own lives is much more entrenched and pervasive than many men would like to think. The flipside, and the opportunity, is that collective silence relies on the continuing participation of everyone involved. Once someone decides to actively and forcefully confront that silence, and the people at the heart of it, the buffer is cracked. The first domino falls. Conspiracies of silence are much weaker than they appear.

Being that person will not feel good. It'll mean you lose friendships. It'll mean conflict and pain with, and among, people you care about. Worse, it'll mean admitting that for a while, you let your love and friendship with someone blind you to the fact of their abuse.

But if we're genuinely serious about calling out violence against women, we need to recognise that we are signing up for something difficult. Something that involves unpleasantness, inconvenience, discomfort. Sacrifice.

That's the choice men have to make, fully aware of what it entails. Consciously discarding the luxury of ignoring what does not affect you is much harder than it sounds, and carries consequences that will have serious reverberations in your own life.

That is the price of entry. You don't get to claim the kudos of being "one of the good ones" while shirking the burdens that come with it -- burdens that women who speak out against abusers bear unaided and alone, with none of the self-congratulatory back-slapping men are so eager to give themselves for doing substantially less than the bare minimum.

Talking about it doesn't involve saying "domestic violence is bad!" and basking in the applause. It involves confronting the people, policies and institutions that perpetuate it, and dealing with the backlash.

This has all been said by countless women countless times, and is usually met with indifference, dismissal or hostility. That makes the business of being an active male opponent of violence against women both more powerful and more complex. The brutal and sad reality is that, as a man, people - especially other men - are more likely to pay attention when you talk about this stuff than when women do, especially at an interpersonal level.

At the same time, that dynamic is part of the problem, and speaking over women relating their own experiences or those of their peers can hinder more than it helps. Instead, lend your strength to them. If you're not sure how you can help someone, ask them, and listen to their response. Defend and support women who speak out - in conversations, in comments sections, and in private. You can't erase or cancel out your privilege, but you can use it in positive ways.

Most men have good intentions when they say "I oppose violence against women". But on their own, good intentions are vastly overrated. When they're not accompanied by defined and ongoing efforts to turn that sentiment into concrete action, good intentions have a nasty habit of going quiet when the rubber hits the road.

There's much more that could be written on this, like the various governments that jump on the "domestic violence is bad" bandwagon when it's in the news while actively perpetuating violence against women through their policies (hi Peter Dutton, thanks for reading), but that's enough for now. I'd love to hear people's thoughts, especially on anything I've overlooked or mischaracterised.

Beyond David Pocock: Why The Leard State Forest Deserves Saving

David Pocock locking himself to a bulldozer is great for all sorts of reasons, but a very minor one is that it's finally given me the push I needed to get my arse into gear and write something on the Leard Blockade. I went up there in June with plans to knock up a full-blown longform piece -- interviews with farmers and protesters, schmick footage of people getting arrested, occasional interjections of Feelings, the works -- and flog it off to any takers.

On the drive up I found out I'd gotten a job with Junkee, and I only managed to write an intro before I started steady work and it fell by the wayside. I tried to get back to it once or twice, but procrastination took over and now it's out of date. It'd be a shame to let what I managed to put together go to waste, so I figured I'd stick it here. Skip to the end if it's too long; I've added some stuff that's a lot more relevant to the here and now. Enjoy.

***

A Weekend In The Country

“Cold tonight, eh?”

The officer asking to see my licence seems nice enough; cops aren’t usually ones for smalltalk. Most likely he’s bored - stamping his feet by the road for hours in the dark, waiting for someone to come along and give him something to do. The car’s owner, James, is dog-tired, so when we reach the police roadblock where the cop’s waiting I’m the one driving. We’ve been on the road for ten hours, come from Sydney to camp at the foothills of the Nandewar Ranges north of Gunnedah. To go easy on James’ battler of a Mitsubishi, we opted to drive through the Hunter Valley instead of the harder route over the Blue Mountains.

Along the way we passed immense towers of dug-up waste, stacked piles of black dirt wedged rudely between acres of rain-brightened farmland, and for a while an immense coal train kept pace with us alongside, coming back from another delivery to the coast. When we pulled up in Kurri Kurri for a bite to eat freshly-printed issues of Coalface, the local miners-sponsored rag, sat in little bundles on street corners, carrying messages from luminaries like state Energy Minister Anthony Roberts and Joel Fitzgibbon that sang the praises of the Hunter’s immense coal industry.

We’re far west of the Hunter now, but Big Coal’s reach doesn’t seem to have diminished with the distance. For four years, Whitehaven Coal has been pushing to develop an immense coalmine near Maules Creek, a tiny village about forty minutes from Narrabri. The proposed area of the mine includes around 2000 square kilometres of the Leard State Forest, a protected area containing the last known stands of White Box gum, along with 31 endangered species.

In 2012, three locals decided they weren’t keen on the prospect of a coalmine for a neighbour, and set up camp in the forest where clearing was due to start. They stayed there for nine months by themselves, blocking the bulldozers and playing host to like-minded souls who would drift in and out, before the camp slowly started growing. In February the state government ordered the protesters to clear out, and banned all but employees of Whitehaven Coal from venturing into the proposed clearing area.

Since then, the protesters have been camped in a paddock belonging to one of the original three locals, a farmer named Cliff. They divide their time between maintaining the camp - sourcing and cooking food, digging toilet pits, helping Cliff out with odd jobs - and venturing illegally into the clearing site to lock themselves to machinery, block roads and generally make Whitehaven’s task a lot harder than it otherwise would be.

For years it’s been a long-running, slow-burning battle, but in recent weeks the stakes have gotten much higher. In May the state government waived the long-standing requirement for logging to cease during winter months, when many animals hibernate and are unable to escape disruption, and the bulldozers finally moved in. In the frantic days and weeks since, the miners have gone hell for leather cutting down as much forest as possible while the going’s good, the camp’s numbers have swelled with out-of-town supporters and locals intent on stopping them, and a growing contingent of police and private security officers have moved in to stand in the middle.

Things have come to a head on the Queen’s Birthday long weekend. Urged on by environmentalist organisations like 350 and GetUp!, a loose assortment of people styling themselves the Convoy Against Coalruption are heading up from Sydney and Canberra to lend their strength to the camp. Together the die-hards and the blow-ins will do their utmost to halt logging until a local group of farmers can file a class action suit against Whitehaven to cease activities at the local magistrate’s office on Tuesday. Dozens will be arrested, but that is kind of the point. The main body of the convoy will arrive on the Saturday afternoon, but some keen beans are making their way up the day before.

Hence why James, his friends Eliza and Ben, and myself, are being stopped at a police roadblock about three kilometres from the campsite, and are politely but firmly being asked to step out of the car.

After conferring with his chattier subordinate, the officer in charge takes over the running of things. He brusquely informs us that we will be subject to a search, car and bodies both, and sticks strictly to the script, answering our questions in legalese in a tone that very much suggests he’d rather not. James is patted down, and Eliza rolls up her baggy fisherman’s trousers at a female officer’s request as three more police go steadily through the car and everything in it, front to back. We watch as they shine torches into empty paper bags, poke around under the seats, go through our clothes and underwear with black-gloved hands.

As we wait by the side of the road we trade smalltalk with one of the more approachable cops, a friendly middle-aged bloke with a beer gut. He’s not local police; he’s been sent here from Wagga Wagga, around 700 kilometres away. He seems blissfully ignorant as to why any of us are here. “No idea mate, I’m just some gumby. They say ‘go here, do this,’ I go.” He shrugs cheerfully. Another cruiser comes down the road, and by the time it reaches us a carload of weary officers from the roadblock is tearing past us on the way back into town. The newcomers switch the cabin light on and sit, less than eager to begin the night shift.

As we stand shivering by the side of the road Eliza films the police on her phone, occasionally dropping narky comments. “Bit cold to be out on a night like this with no reason, hey?” She’s met with a wall of stolid silence from the cops, although.

Eventually there’s nothing left to search, and we pile back into the car. As we inch our way past the police one of the newcomers gives us a half-hearted wave. He’ll be spending a lot of nights like this.

***

That's all I had time to write. Very soon after we left the roadblock we reached the campsite, and I discovered that I'd only packed half a tent. In between crashing in the tent -- complete with tent poles -- that my new best m8 James had brought and stretching his charity well past acceptable levels for someone I'd met that weekend in various ways, it became apparent that I hadn't really prepared for this exercise enough.

That lesson was reinforced on the Sunday, when a call from my sister reminded me that I was supposed to be flying from Sydney to Alice Springs the next morning and James had to lend me his car so I could catch the last flight out of Tamworth. Sometimes I am very clever, but this was not one of those times.

Poor bloody James. He slept the whole two-hour drive to Tamworth, having been up since 4am to block off a mining road. In retrospect it's probably a good thing I slept through the 2am wake-up call for anyone willing to hike ten kilometres through the bush in the middle of the night to sneak into the logging site. If I'd woken up on time I would've been arrested the next morning, like the few dozen people who did manage it, and I would've spent the afternoon in the Boggabri police station instead of hooning through central NSW in someone's borrowed car.

As we neared the turnoff to the airport I was tempted to take a left into the cemetery that sits on the outskirts of town, but we didn't have time -- my flight was almost leaving the tarmac. If we'd had the chance, though, I would've liked to visit my grandmother. She died a long time before I was born, but I think she would've liked my being out at the Leard.

Not many people from the city make it out to that part of the world, but I spent a lot of time there growing up. It's where my mother and father come from; my mum's parents still have a house outside Coonabarabran, and when I was a teenager my dad would take me out camping around Mount Kaputar, or in the Warrumbungles. Sometimes on the return leg of some huge driving trip we would stop in Tamworth cemetery, and say hi to his mum.

I didn't go out to the Leard because I believe in the rightness of what those protesters are doing from a political standpoint, although I do. I went out there because I am a part of that country, and it's a part of me. It shaped my parents, the people to whom I owe everything. My Nana and Pa made their lives on it. My grandmother is buried in it. To see it desecrated, to see its beauty and strangeness blasted and ruined to make money for people who will never understand what they're destroying, is not something I can easily accept.

I don't even live there -- I can't imagine how farmers like Rick Laird and Cliff Wallace, who've worked the land their whole lives, or the Gamilaroi people, who have called it home for millennia, must be coping with the impending loss of their country. That kind of pain explains how a farmer could willingly host a semi-permanent campsite of up to a hundred hippies on his property free of charge, or how a couple of people could live out in the bush for years on end with nothing but possums and court orders for company to stop bulldozers clearing the forest.

It explains why people would lock themselves to mining equipment for hours on end, willingly subjecting themselves to arrest and the death-by-bureaucracy of the courts that eats away at a person's motivation and finances. It explains how people can lie down in front of bulldozers, face off against balaclava'd thugs imported as private security and get up on freezing winter's mornings to cook breakfast for a group of strangers. It's because no matter what indignities and setbacks they're subjected to, the alternative -- the loss of the land that raised them -- is so bad it demands great sacrifices to avoid it.

People are capable of great things when the cause is good enough, and in this case it is. That land -- forest, farmland, wildlife, water table -- is worth fighting for. With a lot of work and support and luck, we just might be able save it.

-

Find out more about the Leard Blockade here.

Don't Let The Gronks Get You Down, or: How I Learned To Stop Moping And Do Stuff

Yesterday Barack Obama gave one of his trademark Inspirational Speeches to a packed auditorium at the University of Queensland. As you might expect, it was heavy on big-picture stuff: climate change, the spread of democracy, LGBT rights and gender equality all got a run.

One of the speech's biggest themes, though, was what really snagged in my head. This comes from about half an hour in:

"Let me say to the young people here, combating climate change cannot be the work of governments alone. Citizens, especially the next generation: you have to keep raising your voices, because you deserve to live your lives in a world that is cleaner and that is healthier and that is sustainable, but that is not going to happen unless you are heard.

"It is in the nature of things, it is in the nature of the world that those of us who start getting grey hair are a little set in our ways; that interests are entrenched. Not because people are bad people, just that's how we've been doing things, and we make investments, and companies start depending on certain energy sources, and change is uncomfortable and difficult. And that's why it's so important for the next generation to be able to step in and say 'it doesn't have to be this way'. We have the power to imagine a new future in a way that some of the older folks don't always have."

Every now and then we get a reminder of the power of a good speech; Julia Gillard's misogyny effort last year, Scott Ludlam's welcome to WA in March, and Cate Blanchett and Noel Pearson's golden orations at Gough Whitlam's memorial a couple of weeks ago. The best speeches aren't the ones that say a lot of things you agree with already, so that you can share them on Facebook with the insightful caption "this". They're the ones that make you think, and help crystallise thoughts and sentiments you weren't sure how to express, while at the same time giving an outlet to powerful, visceral emotions that might otherwise stay bottled up. They simultaneously make your heart and your head expand.

Obama is by no means perfect, but something about this speech puts it in that category, at least for me. Not because it's extremely refreshing to hear a politician of his stature sing from my political songbook (although it is), but because it's so rare now to hear someone talk about the future -- and the people who'll live in it -- with optimism. 

I doubt I'm the only one who has to resist the urge to throw up my hands and say "fuck it" when confronted by the unrelenting tsunami of bullshit that Australian public life seems to embody. To recap all the multitudinous examples of Australian governments, media outlets, corporations and various iterations of authority going about their business with a special mixture of viciousness and mediocrity would take up more space than I'm inclined to fill, and you're probably familiar with most of them already.

What I've been thinking about since that speech isn't those regular acts of incompetent bastardry, but how we react to them. Whenever I find out about the latest ministerial fuckup or racist headline, my first instinct is to write up a Hot Take that pulls apart exactly why it's terrible, using my never-been-done-before blend of snarky wit and blind rage. Most people don't have jobs like mine, but plenty of people react to that kind of news in the same way; Facebook lets you do that because #socialmedia is the #future.

There are a few reasons why we react to industrial-scale fuckery like this. Most obviously it's easy, and it's fun. Pointing out that George Brandis looks like a boiled egg while outlining why his metadata legislation is hideous is one of the great joys of my life, and I don't intend to stop doing it any time soon.

More importantly, though, it's my way of feeling like I'm doing something. Unable to actually stop Boiled Egg and his ilk from passing dreadful laws, or being able to jettison them from the immensely powerful positions they occupy, I content myself with calling them names like Boiled Egg. That's fine; nasty people who do nasty things need to be called out, and the more people who do that the better.

But it's not enough to conscientiously point out all the ways in which we're getting fucked; at some point your anger has to catalyse into action. If the people in charge are rotten at their jobs, and it makes you mad, then you have to start thinking seriously about replacing them with people who'd be better. If there are systems in place which deliver such people into power on a regular basis, you have to start thinking about how those systems might best be dismantled, and what might replace them.

Anger can be extremely useful. Anger gets me out of bed in the morning, some days. Laughing at Tony Abbott running away from a press conference, or Greg Hunt using Wikipedia, or Joe Hockey saying that poor people don't drive cars - it feels good, and by gosh is it easy (seriously, those guys are practically paying my rent).

But if anger doesn't spark off a corresponding resolve to change something -- not just resist or oppose destructive forces and habits, but to create positive ones -- it just sits there. Eventually it calcifies into apathy and cynicism, and then you're stuffed, because apathy and cynicism don't build anything. They don't put probes on comets or cure diseases or get girls in rural Pakistan to school. Cynicism and apathy are admissions of defeat; giving in to them is a cue for shonks and pretenders to run wild, and they know it.

For the Tony Abbotts and Rupert Murdochs of this world, nothing is as useful as someone saying "fuck it, I'm done". That mindset eventually gets you quietly accepting that powerful people can act despicably and get away with it, and all you can do is carp from the sidelines. Power belongs to people like them, and impotent moral superiority belongs to people like you.

Nuts to that. I'm tired of being tired, of dreading the next few years and what might come after them. I'm tired of the closest thing to hope being the small sense of victory that comes when something dreadful gets derailed or postponed, or schaudenfreude when someone terrible screws up. I'm tired of defining my values in opposition to some smug prick's agenda, as though that's all they're good for.

It's extremely easy to forget, especially in times like these, that people of great intelligence and vision can -- and sometimes do -- occupy positions of immense power and influence, and use them to do a great deal of good. We forget that there are better ways of doing things than how we operate now, and that we have the abilities and resources to figure out what they might be. We forget that we have good ideas of our own, and that given the right opportunity those ideas can go very far.

That's why that speech by Obama yesterday will stick with me, I think. We should be aiming higher than trying to bloody Tony Abbott's nose, because we're capable of much more than that. We need that reminder, from time to time; that being political isn't just about giving the bastards a poke in the eye. It's about getting rid of them, and building something better in their place.