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

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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