John Pilger on Australia's hidden Asian empire

That Canberra runs an imperial network is unmentionable, yet the chain of control stretches across Asia.

When the outside world thinks about Australia, it generally turns to venerable clichés of innocence - cricket, leaping marsupials, endless sunshine, no worries. Australian governments actively encourage this. Witness the recent "G'Day USA" campaign, in which Kylie Minogue and Nicole Kidman sought to persuade Americans that, unlike the empire's problematic outposts, a gormless greeting awaited them Down Under. After all, George W Bush had ordained the previous Australian prime minister, John Howard, "sheriff of Asia".

That Australia runs its own empire is unmentionable; yet it stretches from the Aboriginal slums of Sydney to the ancient hinterlands of the continent and across the Arafura Sea and the South Pacific. When the new prime minister, Kevin Rudd, apologised to the Aboriginal people on 13 February, he was acknowledging this. As for the apology itself, the Sydney Morning Herald accurately described it as a "piece of political wreckage" that "the Rudd government has moved quickly to clear away . . . in a way that responds to some of its own supporters' emotional needs, yet changes nothing. It is a shrewd manoeuvre."

Like the conquest of the Native Americans, the decimation of Aboriginal Australia laid the foundation of Australia's empire. The land was taken and many of its people were removed and impoverished or wiped out. For their descendants, untouched by the tsunami of sentimentality that accompanied Rudd's apology, little has changed. In the Northern Territory's great expanse known as Utopia, people live without sanitation, running water, rubbish collection, decent housing and decent health. This is typical. In the community of Mulga Bore, the water fountains in the Aboriginal school have run dry and the only water left is conta minated.

Throughout Aboriginal Australia, epidemics of gastroenteritis and rheumatic fever are as common as they were in the slums of 19th-century England. Aboriginal health, says the World Health Organisation, lags almost a hundred years behind that of white Australia. This is the only developed nation on a United Nations "shame list" of countries that have not eradicated trachoma, an entirely preventable disease that blinds Aboriginal children. Sri Lanka has beaten the disease, but not rich Australia. On 25 February, a coroner's inquiry into the deaths in outback towns of 22 Aboriginal people, some of whom had hanged themselves, found they were trying to escape their "appalling lives".

Most white Australians rarely see this third world in their own country. What they call here "public intellectuals" prefer to argue over whether the past happened, and to blame its horrors on the present-day victims. Their mantra that Aboriginal infrastructure and welfare spending provide "a black hole for public money" is racist, false and craven. Hundreds of millions of dollars that Australian governments claim they spend are never spent, or end up in projects for white people. It is estimated that the legal action mounted by white interests, including federal and state governments, contesting Aboriginal native title claims alone covers several billion dollars.

 

Lurid allegations

 

Smear is commonly deployed as a distraction. In 2006, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's leading current affairs programme, Lateline, broadcast lurid allegations of "sex slavery" among the Mutitjulu Aboriginal people. The source, described as an "anonymous youth worker", was exposed as a planted federal government official, whose "evidence" was discredited by the Northern Territory chief minister and police. Lateline never retracted its allegations. Within a year, Prime Minister John Howard had declared a "national emergency" and sent the army, police and "business managers" into Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory. A commissioned study on Aboriginal children was cited; and "protecting the children" became the media cry - just as it had more than half a century ago when children were kidnapped by white welfare authorities. One of the authors of the study, Pat Anderson, complained: "There is no relationship between the emergency powers and what's in our report." His research had concentrated on the effects of slum housing on children. Few now listened to him. Kevin Rudd, as opposition leader, supported the "intervention" and has maintained it as prime minister. Welfare payments are "quarantined" and people controlled and patronised in the colonial way. To justify this, the mostly Murdoch-owned capital-city press has published a relentlessly one-dimensional picture of Aboriginal degradation. No one denies that alcoholism and child abuse exist, as they do in white Australia, but no quarantine operates there.

The Northern Territory is where Aboriginal people have had comprehensive land rights longer than anywhere else, granted almost by accident 30 years ago. The Howard government set about clawing them back. The territory contains extraordinary mineral wealth, including huge deposits of uranium on Aboriginal land. The number of companies licensed to explore for uranium has doubled to 80. Kellogg Brown & Root, a subsidiary of the American giant Halli burton, built the railway from Adelaide to Darwin, which runs adjacent to Olympic Dam, the world's largest low-grade uranium mine. Last year, the Howard government appropriated Aboriginal land near Tennant Creek, where it intends to store the radioactive waste. "The land-grab of Aboriginal tribal land has nothing to do with child sexual abuse," says the internationally acclaimed Australian scientist Helen Caldi cott, "but all to do with open slather uranium mining and converting the Northern Territory to a global nuclear dump."

 

Indonesian invasion

 

This "top end" of Australia borders the Arafura and Timor Seas, across from the Indo nesian archipelago. One of the world's great sub marine oil and gas deposits lies off East Timor. In 1975, Australia's then ambassador in Jakarta, Richard Woolcott, who had been tipped off about the coming Indonesian invasion of then Portuguese East Timor, secretly recommen ded to Canberra that Australia turn a blind eye to it, noting that the seabed riches "could be much more readily negotiated with Indo nesia . . . than with [an in dependent] Timor". Gar eth Evans, later foreign minister, described a prize worth "zillions of dollars". He ensured that Australia distinguish itself as one of the few countries to recognise General Suharto's bloody occupation, in which 200,000 East Timorese lost their lives.

When eventually, in 1999, East Timor won its independence, the Howard government set out to manoeuvre the East Timorese out of their proper share of the oil and gas revenue by unilaterally changing the maritime boundary and withdrawing from World Court jurisdiction in maritime disputes. This would have denied desperately needed revenue to the new country, stricken from its years of brutal occupation. However, East Timor's then prime minister, Mari Alkatiri, leader of the majority Fretilin party, proved more than a match for Canberra and especially its bullying foreign minister, Alexander Downer.

Alkatiri demonstrated that he was a genuine nationalist who believed East Timor's resource wealth should be the property of the state, so that the nation did not fall into debt to the World Bank. He also believed that women should have equal opportunity, and that health care and education should be universal. "I am against rich men feasting behind closed doors," he said. For this, he was caricatured as a communist by his opponents, notably the president, Xanana Gusmão, and the then foreign minister, José Ramos-Horta, both close to the Australian political Establishment. When a group of disgruntled soldiers rebelled against Alkatiri's government in 2006, Australia readily accepted an "invitation" to send troops to East Timor. "Australia," wrote Paul Kelly in Murdoch's Australian, "is operating as a regional power or a potential hegemon that shapes security and political outcomes. This language is unpalatable to many. Yet it is the reality. It is new, experimental territory for Australia."

A mendacious campaign against the "corrupt" Alkatiri was mounted in the Australian media, reminiscent of the coup by media that briefly toppled Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. Like the US soldiers who ignored looters on the streets of Baghdad, Australian soldiers stood by while armed rioters terrorised people, burned their homes and attacked churches. The rebel leader Alfredo Reinado, a murderous thug trained in Australia, was elevated to folk hero. Under this pressure, the democratically elected Alkatiri was forced from office and East Timor was declared a "failed state" by Australia's legion of security academics and journalistic parrots concerned with the "arc of instability" to the north, an instability they supported as long as the genocidal Suharto was in charge.

Paradoxically, on 11 February, Ramos-Horta and Gusmão came to grief as they tried to do a deal with Reinado in order to subdue him. His rebels turned on them both, leaving Ramos-Horta critically wounded and Reinado himself dead. From Canberra, Prime Minister Rudd announced the despatch of more Australian military "peacemakers". In the same week, the World Food Programme disclosed that the children of resource-rich East Timor were slowly starving, with more than 42 per cent of under-fives seriously underweight - a statistic which corresponds to that of Aboriginal children in "failed" communities that also occupy an abundant natural resource.

 

Blunt instrument

 

Australia is engaged in the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea, where its troops and federal police have dealt with "breakdowns in law and order" that are "depriving Australia of business and investment opportunities". A former senior Australian intelligence officer calls these "wild societies for which intervention represents a blunt, but necessary instrument". Australia is also entrenched in Afghanistan and Iraq. Rudd's electoral promise to withdraw from the "coalition of the willing" does not include almost half of Australia's troops in Iraq.

At last year's conference of the American-Australian Leadership Dialogue - an annual event designed to unite the foreign policies of the two countries, but in reality an opportunity for the Australian elite to express its historic servility to great power - Rudd was in unusually oratorical style. "It is time we sang from the world's rooftops," he said, "[that] despite Iraq, America is an overwhelming force for good in the world . . . I look forward to more than working with the great American democracy, the arsenal of freedom, in bringing about long-term changes to the planet." The new sheriff for Asia had spoken.

www.johnpilger.com

John Pilger, renowned investigative journalist and documentary film-maker, is one of only two to have twice won British journalism's top award; his documentaries have won academy awards in both the UK and the US. In a New Statesman survey of the 50 heroes of our time, Pilger came fourth behind Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. "John Pilger," wrote Harold Pinter, "unearths, with steely attention facts, the filthy truth. I salute him."

This article first appeared in the 10 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How Hillary did it

Biteback and James Wharton
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“It was the most traumatic chapter of my life”: ex-soldier James Wharton on his chemsex addiction

One of the British Army’s first openly gay soldiers reveals how he became trapped in a weekend world of drug and sex parties.

“Five days disappeared.” James Wharton, a 30-year-old former soldier, recalls returning to his flat in south London at 11pm on a Sunday night in early March. He hadn’t eaten or slept since Wednesday. In the five intervening days, he had visited numerous different apartments, checked in and out of a hotel room, partied with dozens of people, had sex, and smoked crystal meth “religiously”.

One man he met during this five-day blur had been doing the same for double the time. “He won’t have been exaggerating,” Wharton tells me now. “He looked like he’d been up for ten days.”

On Monday, Wharton went straight to his GP. He had suffered a “massive relapse” while recovering from his addiction to chemsex: group sex parties enhanced by drugs.

“Crystal meth lets you really dig in, to use an Army term”

I meet Wharton on a very different Monday morning six months after that lost long weekend. Sipping a flat white in a sleek café workspace in Holborn, he’s a stroll away from his office in the city, where he works as a PR. He left the Army in 2013 after ten years, having left school and home at 16.


Wharton left school at 16 to join the Army. Photo: Biteback

With his stubble, white t-shirt and tortoise shell glasses, he now looks like any other young media professional. But he’s surfacing from two years in the chemsex world, where he disappeared to every weekend – sometimes for 72 hours straight.

Back then, this time on a Monday would have been “like a double-decker bus smashing through” his life – and that’s if he made it into work at all. Sometimes he’d still be partying into the early hours of a Tuesday morning. The drugs allow your body to go without sleep. “Crystal meth lets you really dig in, to use an Army expression,” Wharton says, wryly.


Wharton now works as a PR in London. Photo: James Wharton

Mainly experienced by gay and bisexual men, chemsex commonly involves snorting the stimulant mephodrone, taking “shots” (the euphoric drug GBL mixed with a soft drink), and smoking the amphetamine crystal meth.

These drugs make you “HnH” (high and horny) – a shorthand on dating apps that facilitate the scene. Ironically, they also inhibit erections, so Viagra is added to the mix. No one, sighs Wharton, orgasms. He describes it as a soulless and mechanical process. “Can you imagine having sex with somebody and then catching them texting at the same time?”

“This is the real consequence of Section 28”

Approximately 3,000 men who go to Soho’s 56 Dean Street sexual health clinic each month are using “chems”, though it’s hard to quantify how many people regularly have chemsex in the UK. Chemsex environments can be fun and controlled; they can also be unsafe and highly addictive.

Participants congregate in each other’s flats, chat, chill out, have sex and top up their drugs. GBL can only be taken in tiny doses without being fatal, so revellers set timers on their phones to space out the shots.

GBL is known as “the date rape drug”; it looks like water, and a small amount can wipe your memory. Like some of his peers, Wharton was raped while passed out from the drug. He had been asleep for six or so hours, and woke up to someone having sex with him. “That was the worst point, without a doubt – rock bottom,” he tells me. “[But] it didn’t stop me from returning to those activities again.”

There is a chemsex-related death every 12 days in London from usually accidental GBL overdoses; a problem that Wharton compares to the AIDS epidemic in a book he’s written about his experiences, Something for the Weekend.


Wharton has written a book about his experiences. Photo: Biteback

Wharton’s first encounter with the drug, at a gathering he was taken to by a date a couple of years ago, had him hooked.

“I loved it and I wanted more immediately,” he recalls. From then on, he would take it every weekend, and found doctors, teachers, lawyers, parliamentary researchers, journalists and city workers all doing the same thing. He describes regular participants as the “London gay elite”.

“Chemsex was the most traumatic chapter of my life” 

Topics of conversation “bounce from things like Lady Gaga’s current single to Donald Trump”, Wharton boggles. “You’d see people talking about the general election, to why is Britney Spears the worst diva of them all?”

Eventually, he found himself addicted to the whole chemsex culture. “It’s not one single person, it’s not one single drug, it’s just all of it,” he says.



Wharton was in the Household Cavalry alongside Prince Harry. Photos: Biteback and James Wharton

Wharton feels the stigma attached to chemsex is stopping people practising it safely, or being able to stop. He’s found a support network through gay community-led advice services, drop-ins and workshops. Not everyone has that access, or feels confident coming forward.

“This is the real consequence of Section 28,” says Wharton, who left school in 2003, the year this legislation against “promoting” homosexuality was repealed. “Who teaches gay men how to have sex? Because the birds and the bees chat your mum gives you is wholly irrelevant.”


Wharton was the first openly gay soldier to appear in the military in-house magazine. Photo courtesy of Biteback

Wharton only learned that condoms are needed in gay sex when he first went to a gay bar at 18. He was brought up in Wrexham, north Wales, by working-class parents, and described himself as a “somewhat geeky gay” prior to his chemsex days.

After four years together, he and his long-term partner had a civil partnership in 2010; they lived in a little cottage in Windsor with two dogs. Their break-up in 2014 launched him into London life as a single man.

As an openly gay soldier, Wharton was also an Army poster boy; he appeared in his uniform on the cover of gay magazine Attitude. He served in the Household Cavalry with Prince Harry, who once defended him from homophobic abuse, and spent seven months in Iraq.


In 2012, Wharton appeared with his then civil partner in Attitude magazine. Photo courtesy of Biteback

A large Union Jack shield tattoo covering his left bicep pokes out from his t-shirt – a physical reminder of his time at war on his now much leaner frame. He had it done the day he returned from Iraq.

Yet even including war, Wharton calls chemsex “the most traumatic chapter” of his life. “Iraq was absolutely Ronseal, it did exactly what it said on the tin,” he says. “It was going to be a bit shit, and then I was coming home. But with chemsex, you don’t know what’s going to happen next.

“When I did my divorce, I had support around me. When I did the Army, I had a lot of support. Chemsex was like a million miles an hour for 47 hours, then on the 48th hour it was me on my own, in the back of an Uber, thinking where did it all go wrong? And that’s traumatic.”

Something for the Weekend: Life in the Chemsex Underworld by James Wharton is published by Biteback.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 10 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How Hillary did it