Trust Busting For The 21st Century

Politics

Harry Spicer

Recently I read an article from an 1881 edition of The Atlantic talking about Railroad entrepreneurs. It detailed how many American businessmen had flocked to create railroads in the late 19th century in the hope of building a fortune. This new technology opened the path for society changing innovation, including the development of new resource industries that paved the way for some of the 21st century’s greatest achievements.

But, this innovation had a dark side. Some railroads turned into monopolies, through their abuse of market power and brutal competition. They charged exorbitant fees, and paid very little in the way of wages to their employees. Local businesses struggled to move their goods and people could not earn a living. So the American government passed the Sherman antitrust act, broke up the monopolies, and created a competitive market.

Today, a new type of railroad tycoon reigns supreme in our landscape. Google and Facebook take an astonishing 50 percent of online advertising revenue in Australia – four out of eight billion dollars. Like their analogous forerunner, they have changed the market forever, and obliterated previous would be competitors, such as Myspace. Google invented an algorithm for ranking web addresses in 1998 which has proven itself to be an information railroad unrivalled in utility. Facebook has connected users to each other in a way considered impossible just ten years ago.

These companies both possess a natural monopoly. Around 94 percent of searches in Australia are through Google. Facebook has 17 million Australian users, some 20 times that of Myspace at its peak.

The problem is the fact that both Facebook and Google are very bad corporate citizens. Despite taking 50 percent of the online advertising revenue in this country, none of them do anything to create content. Neither Facebook nor Google employ a single journalist, or indeed anyone who creates any content at all. In essence, they create a living out of taking journalist’s or publishers work, and distributing it to other people – they are a glorified middle man.

Publishers in Australia simply cannot afford to avoid Google or Facebook due to their enormous market power. The result is a power relationship which is incredibly lopsided. Newscorp was told by Google it had to give three articles for free to users who clicked onto its publications via a Google search. When Newscorp refused, Google buried them in search rankings, causing an enormous decline in traffic. This is a clear cut case of an egregious misuse of monopoly power.

Google’s attitude has shown no sign of relaxing, yet the consequences are about to get very real for Australia and its citizens. Print newspapers have seen a rapid decline in journalists – down 20 percent in just three years since 2014. The total number of journalists has fallen nine percent from 2006 to 2016.  

Many regional publications are closing, and some metro publications are struggling to cover even basic court cases. The result will soon be a society which doesn’t even know of serious crimes committed in its midst.

Australians are no longer hearing about what is happening in their country, because the information journalists gather is being stolen by US technology firms, and publishers cannot afford to pay their journalists. Governments no longer have as many journalists snooping on their clandestine activities, promoting a culture of corruption and misdeed.

Outrageously, Google has reacted with bitter intransigence to any suggestion its behaviour is anti-competitive, has negative externalities, or that it has developed its competitive advantage because of its extemporaneous regulatory position.

The European Union, for example, found Google guilty of anti-competitive conduct earlier this year, imposing an unprecedented five billion dollar fine for dirty tricks similar to the aforementioned Newscorp example. Instead of introspection, Google has attempted to bog down the court process in procedural gridlock, launching what will likely be a vexatious appeal.

It is clear that this enterprise does not contribute to public policy debates in good faith, and is completely duplicitous in its behaviour both online and in court. For time, this article will not dive into Google’s data operations, which have also caused concern.

Last year the ACCC released a draft report which outlined a damning indictment on the behaviours of these technology giants. The report paints a grim picture for journalism in Australia, revealing the decline in professional journalists. It should send a shiver down the spine of every Australian who values transparency from their institutions.

I expect Google and Facebook to react to this report with typical stonewalling and a lack of understanding of the nuance of the issues at play. Indeed, as I edit this document, Facebook has now responded with a statement which completely rejects even the most basic regulatory oversight.

As a young journalist in my first year as a reporter, I’ve witnessed first hand the devastated and pillaged landscape that is journalism. I’ve watched as City Councils in my region – South East Queensland – have been plagued with corruption scandals. Had there been greater journalistic oversight, these criminals could have been detected earlier, or at least been made to think twice before performing illegal activities.

Now, the Queensland government has been able to implement a low profile media strategy which has made them less accountable to the public, chiefly because the number of journalists and their resources covering the government have been slashed.

I do not blame the strategists of the government for doing so, such is realpolitik, but we, the Australian people, are fools if we do not do something to halt the decline of journalism and theft of intellectual property by Google and Facebook.

To Australia’s leaders, please, step in the ring, stand up and fight for what is right, and regulate these tech giants, and make them pay for the intellectual property they are using. The country is counting on you.

Change the Date

History, Politics

Drew Pavlou

After months of sailing, Captain Arthur Phillip and his English crew made landfall on January 26th, 1788. As the settlers raised the British flag on Australian soil for the first time, they could not have known the profound, lasting impact they would have on the Indigenous peoples of this continent. Crew on this humble expedition could not have known that their voyage would mark the beginning of a horrific, vicious genocide, unique in its scope and in its shocking cruelty. In the coming decades, tens of thousands of Indigenous Australians would be forced from their land, murdered by colonial settlers in vicious attacks. Aboriginal communities across the nation would be decimated by disease, famine, warfare and dispossession. This dark, tortured history began on that fateful day, January 26th. It is not a date worthy of national celebration.

January 26th is not a date worthy of national celebration because it marks the beginning of the destruction of the Indigenous way of life. Captain Phillip’s settlement precipitated the destruction of Indigenous society and a huge collapse in the Indigenous population. The British colonial project would decimate Aboriginal communities across the continent. The historical record shows that Europeans mounted a systematic, genocidal campaign of extermination against Indigenous peoples on the frontiers of settlement to gain access to the richest pastoral land. Consider the diary of Captain John Wallis, a soldier who wrote that ‘’It was a melancholy but necessary duty’’ to massacre an Aboriginal clan in the Appin-Bringelly districts of New South Wales in 1816. As early as the 1870s, the English novelist Anthony Trollope described targeted killings in his writings: ‘’We have massacred (Indigenous Australians) when they defended themselves … and taught them by hard warfare to acknowledge us to be their masters.’’ Surveying such evidence, esteemed historian Henry Reynolds concluded in his seminal work An Indelible Stain? The Question of Genocide in Australia’s History that ‘’white Australians (showed) no desire or will to ensure the survival of the Aborigines as a people … it was common (during the colonial era) to welcome the passing of the Aborigines’ as an indicator of colonial progress, a measure of achievement.’’ Colin Tatz describes how a pre-contact Indigenous population that numbered at least 400,000 people was reduced to just 31,000 by 1911, just 123 years after settlement. This may not be the history the vast majority of Australians celebrate on Australia Day. But it is a history that cannot be separated from Phillip’s voyage and the subsequent British settlement of Australia.

To many Indigenous Australians, there is precious little to rejoice about on January 26th. It marks the loss of traditional land, the loss of family and the very near destruction of a culture that had endured for tens of thousands of years. It marks the beginning of discrimination, persecution and oppression; the beginning of a structured system of economic and social inequality that persists today. Indigenous people on average die 10 years younger than non-Indigenous people. The Indigenous infant mortality rate is almost twice as high as the rate for non-Indigenous people. These shameful statistics owe to the higher rates of poverty most Indigenous communities continue to face. Analysis of data from the 2011 Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) survey found that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were almost twice as likely to experience poverty than other Australians. It is understandable that Indigenous people do not find much to celebrate on January 26th. It marks the beginning of a cruel system of oppression, the effects of which are still being felt today.

January 26th is not a date worth of national celebration. Changing the date will not fix everything. It won’t erase the very real inequities Indigenous Australians continue to face – only a concerted societal push to close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous outcomes could do that. But changing the date means acknowledging that there was a real, concerted effort to eradicate the Aboriginal race here in Australia. Owning up to this dark history would be a healthy symbolic step towards reconciliation. In the interests of lasting inter-cultural understanding, Australia’s national celebration cannot be commemorated on a day that marks the beginning of a genocide. The date of Australia Day must be changed.

The Republican Party’s Disgrace

Politics

Drew Pavlou 

Dr Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee was heart wrenching and harrowing. Under oath, she tearfully outlined in excruciating detail how Judge Kavanaugh attempted to rape her when they were teenagers. No Republican Senator dared challenge her sincerity or the truthfulness of her account. The Republican Chair of the Judiciary Committee Chuck Grassley of Iowa thanked her for her bravery in speaking out. Then, Republican Senators voted to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to a life time appointment on the Supreme Court anyway. In so doing, the Republican Party took a sledgehammer to the court’s legitimacy and America’s long held democratic traditions and institutions. In so doing, they showed just how reactionary and regressive their party has become.

For Republicans, the fight was never about the veracity of the allegations made against Judge Kavanaugh. Theirs was not a battle for the defence of due process as they claimed but a desperate defence of the cultural privileges of powerful men in American society. Quiet as the Me-Too movement swept America, conservatives finally drew a line in the sand when it came to Judge Kavanaugh. They manned the ramparts in defence of what they saw to be an endangered species, the downtrodden elite white male. Spitting in the face of common decency, the Republican White House unduly curtailed the scope of the FBI’s investigation into the allegations, barring the agency from interviewing dozens of potentially important witnesses. Republicans bullied, mocked, harassed and debased Dr Ford, sending her and her family death threats. Police escorts had to be arranged for wavering Republican Senators after they received threats of violence. Senator Lindsay Graham, the man who would emerge as Kavanaugh’s fiercest defender on the right, would tellingly touch on the cultural dimensions of his refusal to abandon the judge: ‘’I know I’m a single white male from South Carolina, and I’m told I should shut up, but I will not shut up.’’ The Republican Party’s abject tribalism, their twisted attempts to exploit the situation as part of the wider cultural wars, was shockingly brazen and cynical. It marked a new low for the Republican Party and their shameless, divisive and arrogant gutter politics. Kavanaugh himself was complicit in this, unleashing a vitriolic and venomous partisan attack on Democrats in the Senate who he alleged had conjured up a vast conspiracy against him in order to ‘’totally and permanently’’ destroy his family. Such bile on the part of the justice served to strengthen rather than undermine Republican support for his nomination.

All in all, the Republican Party’s unabashed attempts to confirm a conservative justice at whatever cost demonstrates their open contempt for the American people and the democratic institutions of the Republic. Conservative senators representing a diminishing minority of America’s population imposed their will over the American people by confirming a deeply unpopular and perhaps criminal justice nominated by a President who did not win the popular vote at election and who has never commanded a majority of the American people’s support in his two years in office. The Party of Lincoln is dead and all that remains is a coalition of deplorable psychopaths whose naked, rapacious lust for power knows no bounds. 25 years ago, Republican Senators disgracefully tore apart Anita Hill before a national audience in their attempt to confirm Clarence Thomas. Today, they have somehow managed to top that disgraceful performance with the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. Their attitude toward victims of sexual abuse and assault has somehow regressed in the past two decades. We are left with a broken, shattered party in the grip of far-right reactionaries and ideologues intent on hijacking the American democratic project. What we see now is not the great party of Lincoln but a staggering, ragged Frankenstein’s monster, an abominable affront to God’s creation. Its festering sores crudely stitched together, it is a nightmarish mishmash of raving racists, misogynists and hardcore reactionaries. The storied Republican Party no longer believes in any shared commitment to a higher project, the good of the American republic. It believes only in raw power and domination. We are all worse off for this stunning tragedy and crisis.

 

 

 

 

 

Assad and Chemical Weapons

Philosophy, Politics

Drew Pavlou

President Donald Trump may be a lumbering buffoon, but his administration has been right on at least one thing. Trump’s decision to launch airstrikes against Assad’s forces in April 2018 in order to degrade Syria’s facilities for the production of chemical weapons and deter their future use was morally justified and a necessary act on the part of the international community.

We know with certainty that Assad was behind the devastating chemical attack on Douma in 2018 that left dozens of Syrian civilians dead. Assad had the motive to use such weapons in Douma and his regime has used them in the past. Having vowed to take the entirety of Syria back from rebels by force, the use of chemical weaponry in Douma was a desperate attempt to salvage a victory for Assadist forces from the jaws of defeat. Assadist forces had taken heavy losses in brutal street fighting against the hardened, entrenched Sunni Islamist rebel organisation Jabhat Ansar al-Islam. In the face of such intense fighting, Jabhat Ansar al-Islam attempted to negotiate a deal with Russians under which they would stay in the city, which Russia, Assad’s main foreign backer, agreed to. In order to avoid agreeing to such a deal which would have represented a crushing defeat in his quest to take the entire country back by force, Assad directed his helicopters to pummel the area with chemical weapons and barrel bombs. Jabhat Ansar al-Islam ultimately surrendered and withdrew, handing Assad the military victory he craved. It was not the first time Assad had effectively used chemical weapons in service of military gains. According to the United Nations Mission to Investigate Allegations of the Use of Chemical Weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic, since Assad’s use of Sarin in Khan al-Assal in 2013 which resulted in the death of some 1300 civilians, there have been dozens of chemical attacks perpetrated by the regime. This circumstantial evidence pointing to Assad’s guilt is compounded by a French technical analysis of the attacks that shows Assad’s responsibility for them.

French intelligence services analysed the testimonies, photos and videos that spontaneously appeared on specialized websites, in the press and on social media in the hours and days following the attack and concluded with a high degree of certainty that chemical weapons known to be stockpiled by the Syrian government were behind the mass casualties that occurred in Douma. Based on footage of the crime scene which showed that a gas cannister had pierced the roof of the civilian complex in which dozens were killed, French intelligence services concluded that the chemical attack was conducted via air, something that points to Assad’s culpability given that there were a number of Syrian government air force operations in the area on the day of the attack. The rebels have no air force and a de-confliction agreement with Western nations allows only Syrian and Russian government planes to operate in the Douma area. If the attack was delivered via air, it must have been Assad.

Knowing Assad’s guilt, to stand by and do nothing would be an act of complicity on the part of the West. Western military intervention in the Middle East has often been disastrous and has often materially worsened the lives of civilians in affected countries (See: Iraq) and for this reason a policy of regime change in Syria would be misguided and wrong. However, America’s limited military strikes on Assad’s chemical warfare research and production facilities are morally justifiable. Assad’s chemical attacks have murdered thousands of Syrian civilians in brutal, horrifying fashion. The graphic photos from Douma of children struggling to breathe, their lungs burning with chlorine gas, are heart wrenching and soul destroying. These are human beings. We cannot abandon them to their fate just because they live on the other side of the world. One day I fear my children will ask: How did your generation stand by and do nothing? In 1994, the West stood by and did nothing as 1 million Tutsi civilians were murdered in the horrific Rwandan genocide. The West, with all its military might, with its capacity to intervene, would turn its back on innocent women and children being brutally murdered. A failure to act in Syria, a failure to destroy Assad’s chemical weapon stockpiles, would be our generation’s Rwanda moment. Failing to act is complicity. If we have firm intelligence indicating the location of Assad’s chemical warfare research and production facilities, and fail to destroy them, we are just as much responsible for the murder of Syrian children subjected to chlorine and Sarin gas as Assad. Without action, thousands more would die a torturous death at the hands of these banned weapons. The moral philosopher Peter Singer would argue: ”If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, then we ought, morally, to do it. It makes no moral difference whether the person I can help is a neighbour’s child ten yards from me or a resident of the developing world, whose name I shall never know, ten thousand miles away.” I believe this moral principle is applicable here. If we have the capacity to intervene, to save the lives of Syrians, yet fail to do so, it is our moral failing. Deaths would be on our hands. For this reason Trump’s strikes on Assad’s chemical warfare facilities were morally justified.

Sir Joh Was A Monster

History, Politics

Drew Pavlou

‘’Woe to the inhibiters of the earth and of the sea! for the devil is come down unto you, having great wrath, because he knoweth that he hath but a short time.’’

Revelation 12:12

Sir Joh Bjelke-Peterson, that figure of death and repression that terrified our state for three decades, has of late assumed a posthumous cult following among some delusional conservatives; his reputation is sadly undergoing something of a renaissance among the meth-addled freaks that make up the most conservative factions of the LNP. Last month, on the fiftieth anniversary of his seizure of power, tributes flowed for the man who set our state back decades and made the lives of Queenslanders a living hell. The Young LNP shared the following on Facebook: ‘’Sir Joh built Queensland, from the Gateway bridge to numerous airports, coal mines, power stations and dams. Thank you Sir Joh for your service to Queensland.’’ Given this collective retreat from reason and reality, it is necessary that someone remind everyone of the reality of Joh’s toxic, repressive rule. It is necessary that someone tethered to reality provide a proper accounting of the corruption, cruelty and horror of the Joh years.

It is vital as part of any analysis of the matter that we consider the history of Sir Joh Bjelke-Peterson’s regime as objectively and dispassionately as possible. And looking at the history of Sir Joh’s rule in Queensland, it is impossible to come to any other objective conclusion but that he was a deeply corrupt, brain dead thug whose death we are all better for. In transforming Queensland into a repressive police state, he was probably the most crooked, evil man to ever be premier. With his Special Branch, he ran a spy state almost unparalleled in any other Western democracy. His secret police were reminiscent of the GDR’s Stasi in their reach and repression – they kept tabs on students and political opponents, harassing and intimidating those who would oppose Joh’s fetid regime. As the FitzGerald inquiry would eventually show, Joh ran a political system corrupt and rotten to the core. The police under Terry Lewis and Joh’s watch were basically nothing more than another organised crime gang intent on terrorising Queenslanders. Half of Joh’s cabinet would ultimately be jailed for taking bribes. His infamous Bjelkemander ensured that he ruled without popular consent, ignoring the will of the people. He was the ultimate expression of Australia’s darkest impulses, a racist hillbilly dictator who set our state back generations.

Under Joh Bjelke-Peterson’s dark regime, each new morn new sorrows struck heaven in the face. His vicious police force beat up young students and anti-apartheid protesters. Repressive state censorship stifled political expression and free speech. In keeping homosexuality criminalised in Queensland, he ensured our state was in league with medieval, backwards theocracies like Saudi Arabia and Sudan. Even for a conservative politician of his time, Joh’s response to the HIV/AIDs epidemic was damning and disgraceful. He denounced gay people as deviants and tried to ban them from public spaces; he called on his deeply corrupt police commissioner to raid gay communities and he worsened the AIDs epic by banning condom machines and shutting down safe sex education campaigns. Joh Bjelke-Peterson was a violent thug, a monster, a criminal and a crook.

Some might say that it is wrong to so viciously attack a man who has been dead for a decade. But those who tried to speak out against him when he was in power were suppressed and censored, so we owe the man nothing. Joh has been lent too much respect in death. If there was any justice in this world Joh would not have been venerated with a state funeral; his body would have been burned in a trash bin or launched into the sea to be eaten by sharks. He was a ghoulish creep, a monstrous thug, a vicious bully and an evil tyrant. It is not too late for us all to collectively recognise this. The plot in which he was buried can still be salted so that nothing may ever grow there again. This would be the only fitting way to remember the terrorist who so brutalised our great state.

Why Does Assad Still Rule Syria?

Politics

Drew Pavlou

Bashar Al-Assad’s shameless, blood-spattered regime stands defiant; after seven years of brutal civil war, pro-government forces now control much of the shattered country. Once, Assad’s days in power had appeared numbered. In 2011, when pro-democracy demonstrations first swept Syria, Assad’s friendless and isolated regime had flirted with collapse. Preferring full scale civil war to peaceful resignation, Assad launched brazen chemical attacks against his own citizens as his government teetered on the brink. Now, the international community must reckon with the fact that Assad’s vicious government may stay on for decades to come. Armed opposition has been crushed; rebel groups have been forced from all major urban centres. Why does Assad still rule Syria?

Russian and Iranian military intervention in Syria certainly helped Assad’s cause. Russian war planes have battered rebel forces across the country and Russian military advisors have helped plan successful government offensives. Iranian proxy forces have helped to replenish Assad’s depleted, overwhelmed military at crucial moments. But Assad’s survival is perhaps best explained by the ineptness of his political opposition. No united force ever emerged to singularly challenge his rule – the Free Syrian Army ceased to exist as a centralised organisation early in the conflict, with rebel forces fragmenting into hundreds of different militias. Hardcore Islamist groups infiltrated secular opposition ranks, tainting them irreparably in the eyes of the West – under their direction, opposition forces terrorised ethnic and religious minorities. Rebel groups like the Al-Qaeda aligned Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham committed terrible war crimes against civilians, making them an unacceptable governing alternative to the international community. Infighting within rebel-controlled territory in Idlib and Eastern Ghouta helped to sap any potential concerted resistance against regime offensives.

In short, there was never any serious political alternative to Assad’s gruesome rule. His brutal government was able to exploit this horrific situation to full effect, defeating the fragmented, divided opposition that sprung up against his government. While the war continues to rage in pockets of the country, it appears that Assad’s position is now secure. In what has been an instructive lesson to tyrants everywhere, Assad’s brutal, cruel rule will likely continue long into the future. The people of Syria will suffer for this tragedy.

 

Macron For France

Politics

Drew Pavlou

The first round of Presidential elections comes at a jittery time for France; an extended campaign of Islamic terrorism has rattled the country, and weak growth and high unemployment has given rise to populist feeling. Voters are deeply fed up with the existing political order, and as they go to the polls this weekend, they seem likely to roundly reject the two major parties which have dominated the Fifth Republic’s presidential system for so long. Benoît Hamon, the Socialist candidate, languishes far behind the leaders, polling in single digits, his party damaged beyond repair by the dreadful standing of Hollande – the President saw a remarkable approval rating of just 4% in late 2016. Meanwhile, Francois Fillon, candidate for the Republicans, has been gravely wounded by a family expenses scandal. He ignored calls to drop out after it was revealed he possibly gave fictitious jobs to family members – Penelope, Fillon’s wife, is accused of having done little to no work while being paid hundreds of thousands in public funds as a ‘’parliamentary assistant.’’ While he bravely limps on with a chance at the second round, the election was supposed to be his to lose.

This deep unhappiness with the established political class has given rise to nasty demagogues. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a charismatic ex-Trotskyite of the hard left, stands a chance at being President after he saw a dramatic upsurge of support in the final weeks of campaigning. He has promised to pull France out of European Union treaties; sympathetic to autocratic, anti-Western leaders like Vladimir Putin and the late Hugo Chavez, Mélenchon would withdraw France from NATO. Marine Le Pen, meanwhile, of the hard-right, xenophobic National Front, campaigns against immigration, globalisation, the EU and ‘’Islamism.’’ She has sought to present her brand of extremist politics with a shiny, professionalised sheen – yet underneath, there is a repulsive core. Her party has an ugly anti-Semitic past; she recently sought to deny Vichy France’s role in the Holocaust, prompting swift condemnation by Israel’s Foreign Ministry. Suspicions have long lingered that Russian banks close to Putin have financed her party’s campaign.

There is a common link between Mélenchon and Le Pen – both would see France withdraw from the international liberal world order which has guaranteed decades of peace and prosperity. If elected, they would herald the beginning of a darker, poorer era for France; isolationist, closed to the world. It would be a sad fate for a country which gave us the Enlightenment.

In the face of such horrible options for President, voters should back Emmanuel Macron. A young, telegenic, outsider, Macron has run a remarkably optimistic campaign considering the mood of the French electorate. Bravely standing up for progressive values and globalisation, he has been drawing massive crowds across France – he leads polling for the first-round vote. He stands for a France open to the world; at a time when many Frenchman are suspicious of the European project, Macron is unabashedly pro-EU. His socially liberal values and business friendly approach have managed to endear him to both sides of the political spectrum; if he faced Le Pen or Mélenchon in the second round, surveys of voters show he would soundly win.

French voters should get behind Macron. It is true that he lacks experience; he has never held elected office before. But only he has the power to stand up for an open, brighter France – a France brave enough not to shut out an increasingly unsure world, but to stand up and shape it. This writer hopes he pulls through this weekend.