Philip Ruddock is seen during a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra, Tuesday, May 26, 2015. (AAP Image/Lukas Coch) NO ARCHIVING

WHAT a fizzer. After sitting on the Ruddock report on religious freedom for six months the best the Government can come up with is to refer all five of the contentious matters to the Australian Law Reform Commission and agree to the other 15 totally innocuous ones.

One might well ask, Why did the government bother? We know the answer. Not because there is any real threat to religious freedom in Australia, but because a few aggrieved conservative Coalition MPs, egged on by the News Corp – Sky News echo chamber detested the prospect of marriage equality and wanted to return to the days of discrimination against LGBTI people.

The Ruddock report and the Government’s reaction to it has opened a can of worms and opened Pandora’s Box, and all sorts of nasties have come out. The report’s recommendations (No 5 and 7) included permitting religious schools to discriminate against students, staff and contractors on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or relationship status, (provided the discrimination is founded on precepts of the religion and has been publicised).

The Government flicked that one to the Australian Law Reform Commission.

So we have not moved very far, except to implicitly accept that this discrimination can continue until the commission deals with it.

But some good may come of all this. The worms and contents of Pandora’s Box are so bad that they will cause a reaction. Indeed they have already done so.

As this column suggested some weeks ago when some of the recommendations were leaked, this report could easily back-fire on the conservative promoters of precept that people could discriminate under the banner of religion in a way that would otherwise be unlawful.

Australia’s top legal professional body, the Law Council of Australia, came out very shortly after the release of the report saying that while it welcomed steps to enshrine religious protections, “the delicate balance between freedom of religion and freedom from discrimination would be better dealt with in comprehensive national anti-discrimination legislation”.

I would go further and argue for a fully fledged constitutional Bill of Rights.

On the other hand, the Government dodged any ire from the conservatives by even referring the tiny bit contentious Recommendations 6 and 8 to the Law Reform Commission. Those recommendations say all “jurisdictions should abolish any exception to anti-discrimination law for religious schools against students, staff and contractors on the basis of race, disability, pregnancy or intersex status. Further, jurisdictions should ensure that any exceptions for religious schools do not permit discrimination against an existing employee solely on the basis that the employee has entered into a marriage.”

To most people that would be obvious, but not to the Morrison Government, with Sky News, Abbott, Abetz, and News Corp flaring their nostrils at the possibility that same-sex spouses might have equal rights.

The glaring inconsistency of the Ruddock report is laid bare when you compare its Recommendations 5 and 7 (which would PERMIT discrimination against staff, students and contractors on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and relationship status), on one hand, and Recommendation 6 and 8 (which would PROHIBIT discrimination on the ground of race, disability, pregnancy or intersex status).

Why prohibit discrimination on one set of grounds but not the other? Because the other is all about sex. The churches and the conservatives are hung-up about sex.

The whole Ruddock report and the Government’s response to it is too silly and childish to be taken seriously, much as I have the utmost respect for some of the panel members.

Yes, there are serious human-rights questions in Australia, but they are more to do with abuse BY the religious not AGAINST them, and more to do with things totally outside the religious sphere. These include things like speech, privacy, unjustified incarceration, race, violence against women, violence by police, and to a lesser extent freedom of association and assembly.

Freedom of speech is a major issue, especially the way defamation laws are repressing the venting of significant matters of public interest.

Indeed, Recommendation 3 recognises the importance of other rights, besides religion.

It says, “Commonwealth, State and Territory governments should consider the use of objects, purposes or other interpretive clauses in anti-discrimination legislation to reflect the equal status in international law of all human rights, including freedom of religion.”

Logically, however, freedom of religion is the least important and most concocted freedom in the human-rights handbook. This is because once you have a strong defence of freedom of association, freedom of assembly, and freedom of speech, a separate head of freedom of religion is unnecessary. With those freedoms protected, people could belong to whatever church they liked, congregate wherever they wanted and could spout whatever doctrine or nonsense they wanted to whomever wished to listen, provided they did not harm others.

But looking at it that way might give succour to those pesky unions (freedom of association) and those pesky demonstrators (freedom of assembly) and that would never sit well with News Corp and Abbott et al.

The Coalition is not really interested in human rights outside a perverted view that human rights include a right to spout hate speech and to discriminate against gays. The Ruddock review was never about rights, but about former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull placating the right wing of his party.

Any serious inquiry into strengthening human rights in Australia would look at all rights and how to enshrine them in the Constitution so they could be upheld by the independent courts against ever-encroaching federal, state and territory legislatures and executives.
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other mastheads on 15 December 2018.


A SURVEY on immigration published this week seems to fly in the face of all other indications showing that more Australians are objecting to high immigration.

This week’s survey reports that 52 per cent of respondents think Australia’s immigration intake is about right or too low. That seems to run counter to other polls and broader political concern that immigration is too high, including Prime Minister Scott Morrison saying that he had heard “loud and clear” that “Australians in our biggest cities are concerned about population. [click to continue…]


RESULTS in the Victorian election last weekend will go a long way to guaranteeing that Liberal-turned-independent Julia Banks will retain Chisholm at the next Federal election, if she decides to stand.

How is that, one might ask. Chisholm will fall to Labor on a 3.4 per cent swing and Labor got a 6 per cent swing in the state election.

Well, it is all to do with Victoria’s Upper House, the Legislative Council, and the dirty deed Labor did on the Greens.
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The ANI 2018 Annual General Meeting

by on November 24, 2018

The ANI 2018 Annual General Meeting was held at the Australian Defence Academy on 19 November. Preceding the event the Vice Chief of Defence Force, Vice Admiral David Johnstone gave an illuminating presentation on the significant issues with which the Defence senior leadership are dealing. He then took questions from the members. [click to continue…]


What to do about the string of pearls

by on November 23, 2018

TWO under-reported events earlier this month show how serious China is to become the world’s dominant economic, and possibly, military power. They come as President Donald Trump is making a hash of US trade and security matters.

Most people have been concentrating on China’s moves the South China Sea and the Pacific, but developments to the west should raise similar concerns.

China has signed a $A9 billion agreement to construct a deep-water port at Kyaukphyu, a strategic city in Myanmar that lies on the Bay of Bengal coast.

In a complementary move China is dusting off proposals to build a 120-kilometre canal across the Isthmus of Kra in southern Thailand.

Together with the Chinese-built and now Chinese-owned port at Hambantota in Sri Lanka and the Chinese-built port at Gwadar close to the mouth of the Persian Gulf in Pakistan it will make for a Chinese-controlled string of pearls trading route from China to the Middle East and Europe.

The canal will mean ships could go from China to the Indian Ocean without passing Singapore or going through the Straits of Malacca.

Though the canal will be in Thai territory, the Chinese financing will ensure Chinese control, in the same way that the British and French controlled the Suez Canal for decades and the US controlled the Panama Canal for decades.

How should the US respond?

The US is confronting China over unfair trade and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, but not getting very far. Australia and other nations, too, have criticised China for its militarisation of the South China Sea, but again they have not got very far.

China just shrugs and keeps on going.

It would be foolish to think that Trump can do to China what President Ronald Reagan claimed to do to the Soviet Union: confront and out-spend militarily until it collapses.

The present US-China confrontation is nothing like the US-Soviet confrontation during the Cold War.

The idea that a Soviet-led communist empire would replace the US as the world’s dominant economic and military power was never a serious proposition except in the minds of a few paranoid US military figures.

The Soviet Union was never a huge trading nation, unlike China, so it had no real sway over the West.

During the Cold War security issues could be separated from economic and trade issues. There was simply so little trade with the communist bloc that it could be ignored. Besides, the Soviet system would have collapsed even without Reagan’s pressure.

China, on the other hand, has emerged as an economic powerhouse and the West is now dependent on it, not just for economic prosperity and economic growth, but utterly dependent on Chinese production and export of vital goods.

For example, the US no longer produces penicillin and, indeed, a raft of generic medicines upon which many American lives depend. They are made in China and to a lesser extent India.

In this environment, Trump’s tariff actions and threats are extremely dangerous and economically destructive. The US is a capitalist democracy under the rule of law. China is not.

Legally, Trump could only impose his steel tariff without congressional approval if national security was an issue. There are legal constraints on restricting US exports to China. Private companies can export against presidential wishes.

China, on the other hand, could without notice or legal nicety, cut off the supply of vital drugs to the US. It could impose tariffs on US imports in a politically motivated way to hurt producers of products in places that voted heavily for Trump – such as soya beans.

Trump – accepting bad advice on national security not taking good advice on trade – has done exactly the opposite of what is needed.

As revealed in Bob Wooward’s “Fear. Trump in the White House”, Trump ignored advice that he should aggressively take on China under the World Trade Organisation for theft of intellectual property. Most of the developed world would have joined in. It would have bolstered the rules-based order. But Trump worried about his illusory good relationship with President Xi.

He ignored advice to stay in the Trans Pacific Partnership and the Paris Climate Accord. He ignored advice not to impose the steel tariff. The advice was that it would harm US industry that consumed steel especially cars, boats and pipelines while not creating any steel jobs.

On the other hand, some of his instincts on national security were dead right, but he allowed the military-industrial complex, the Washington elites and swamp to deter him from acting on them.

During the campaign publicly and afterwards privately, Trump railed against Europe and South Korea for not pulling their weight on security and he said the US should just pull out of Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and the Middle East generally and should never have gone there in the first place. Quite right.

But his advisers said that if the US withdrew from Afghanistan, it would enable terrorists in Afghanistan to launch an attack on US soil for which he would be blamed. Trump capitulated, agreeing to stay the course and increase troop numbers in an unwinnable 16-year-old war.

He should have said a withdrawal would make terrorist attacks less likely, not more likely. Similarly, withdrawal from South Korea would make an attack by North Korea, less likely not more likely.

However, these withdrawals would have had to be accompanied by a winding back of arms sales to Israel and Saudi Arabia if the US really wanted to take itself off the list of Islamic extremists’ terror targets. Unfortunately, Trump would never do that.

Even so, a better response to China is needed. The US should stop being policeman to the world and extricate itself from costly shooting wars costly unilaterally declared trade wars. The peace dividend could then be used to do what China is doing: helping developing countries develop transport infrastructure to improve trade.

This is not a new idea. After all, a century ago a US government commission headed by US Army engineers built the Panama Canal. Why shouldn’t the US join Thailand and China in building the Kra canal? That sort of cooperation would help bring China into the international rules-based order and be much more constructive than hissy fits on trade and shoot-from-the hip policies in the Muslim world.
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Fairfax Media on 24 November 2018.


When US President Woodrow Wilson tried to belittle Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes at the 1919 Versailles peace conference by asking who he represented, Hughes replied: “I speak for 60,000 Australian war dead.”

Hughes may have been bellicose, belligerent and vengeful, but at least he was there, unlike the present Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison.

After four years of having to put up with the jingoism, glorification of war and exaggerated nationalism of the Anzac legend during the centenary of World War I, the one time the real horror and futility of war is marked with quiet dignity, our Prime Minister is missing in inaction. He is on a bus eating pies and drinking beer in Queensland. [click to continue…]


Death throes of Coalition Governments

by on November 9, 2018

THE past couple of decades are not unique in Australian political history: the despising of the loathsome politicians and the sudden and late coming around of those loathsome politicians to abandon the positions of their financial backers and appease the majority of thoughtful people in the face of impending electoral defeat.

No doubt some diehard Labor supporters are nervous that the Scott Morrison Government will neutralise the big issues like Nauru, climate change and an anti-corruption commission with a bit of policy sop and then sneak back into office, that he will road-to-Damascus like see the light and be as successful as St Paul in gaining conversions and followers.

Do not fear.

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Google pain worth the gain

by on November 2, 2018

THE Australian-accented woman’s voice on Google Maps can sure murder the pronunciation of Italian street names. “In 800 metres turn left at VIE-AH LEPARD-DIE then turn right into VIE-HA GUY-SEP LEDG-EO,” and so on.

Just as well.

The car we (my wife Louise and I) had hired for our two-week drive around Sicily had a navigation system, but it was set to Italian and there was no teenager or PhD in electronic engineering readily available to set it to English, even if such a thing were possible. [click to continue…]


Going by the trend in Wentworth it seems that the big stich-up against minor parties and independents in the Senate by the Coalition and Labor in 2016 is not going to work.

I will return to the Senate stich-up shortly. But first to the House of Representatives.

Everyone assumes the election will be in May. But maybe not. [click to continue…]


“This is just Government 101: carefully consider the issues in front of you and make the best possible judgments about the way forward,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said about the reason for the Government withholding the Ruddock report on religious freedom. It presumes basic university-level learning. Alas, this Government’s behaviour belongs in primary school.

The reference to “101” is to the way universities label their subjects. Government 101 would be the subject Government in first semester of first year. [click to continue…]