Friday, August 18th

News is just coming through of a devastating terror attack in Barcelona, where a van plowed through a crowd, killing at least thirteen people and injuring up to a hundred. ISIS has claimed responsibility, and police have killed five suspects. The situation continues to evolve today.

North Korea released a statement this week saying they were delaying their potential attack on Guam. We did a deep dive on the issue on Tuesday. It’s good news for those of us who aren’t fans of world wars that could possibly annihilate everyone. Australia, America and South Korea are going to proceed with scheduled training exercises in South Korea next week, which is likely to piss off the North again.

In the States, the week began with a disturbing murder in Charlottesville, Virginia. A young woman was killed when a car drove through her  protest group at the University of Virginia. The group were counter-protesting white nationalist protestors who were upset about the planned removal of a statue of a pro-slavery Confederate General – the almost entirely white protest group has been photographed with torches, and some dressed in Nazi shirts and insignia. Trump’s immediate statement on the matter said their was violence on ‘both sides’ (which goes against countless eye witness reports, who are insisting that the nationalist group were the only ones who were violent). The statement upset many who said he had not spoken out clearly enough against racism and white supremacists. Trump fired back in an off-script press conference, blaming the violent ‘alt-left’ were just as much to blame, if not more so than the right wing group. The conference was a train wreck. Dozens of major business leaders, previously part of Trump’s consultation bodies, have run away from him, afraid their continued association will paint them as racist. It’s the latest in Trump’s record-setting disastrous Presidency.

The Yarra Council in Melbourne passed a unanimous vote to ditch Australia Day celebrations in their council area. Malcom Turnbull said the council way over-stepped the mark, and are going against Australian values.

Aussie Parliament was cray this week. In actual law-making:

  • The government is trying to pass its media reform package through the Senate.  Under the reforms, the government would ditch the long-held 75% rule, which states that a commercial television provider can’t reach more than 75% of Australia’s total population. This, and other rules, were originally designed to prevent old-time pre-internet media moguls from taking up too much broadcast space. Some are concerned about limiting Australia’s media diversity. The reforms will pass, but independents in the Senate are using the opportunity to do some bargaining. This week, One Nation had a win, attempting to control the ABC’s ‘left-leaning’ commentary by forcing ABC staff who earn over $200,000 to make their earnings public, and setting up an inquiry into ABC’s capacity for ‘fair and balanced’ reporting. One Nation has previously boycotted the ABC for not giving enough air time to anti-vaccination advocates, or climate change deniers. Negotiations continue.
  • The government put its Medicare levy bill into the House of Representatives this week. Most Australians pay a Medicare levy to support public health of 2% of their total income. The government wants to raise it to 2.5% to pay for the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS). The NDIS was put in under Gillard to provide major and meaningful support to people under the age of 65 suffering from a permanent and significant disability. The Government says they need another $8 billion to make it work. Labor is saying that they’ll only support a raise to the levy for those earning over $87,000 a year.
  • Complaints and confusion about the same-sex marriage postal plebiscite continue. There was some speculation this week that 16 and 17 year olds could vote – but this was later denied. No one is sure how those who are blind will be able to vote, and questions remain around Australians living in remote communities, or those working on mining shifts who don’t have a fixed residential address.

But Parliament was also cray with some other stuff:

  • The last month or so has seen major chaos for half a dozen politicians after citizenship concerns have been raised. Two Greens Senators resigned over revelations that they were citizens of other countries. This week the poop really hit the fan when it was revealed that Barnaby Joyce, Deputy Prime Minister, has dual citizenship in New Zealand. The High Court is currently deciding if that makes him ineligible to sit in Parliament. He is just the highest of three pollies in the LNP leadership who are facing trouble. If they chuck them out, it will be major trouble to Turnbull’s entire party. More on this in a deep dive on Tuesday, where we’ll go into the whole debacle.
  • Pauline Hanson rocked up to the Senate in a burqa this week to ‘raise awareness of security issues’. The entire Senate – and a good whack of Australia – was offended by the move, including Attorney-General George Brandis, who absolutely slammed the move in the Senate and received a standing ovation for his statements.
  • In the wake of continued devastating reports out of the Manus Island Detention Centre of refugees making suicide attempts and suffering rampant abuse, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton quietly repealed some of the most controversial aspects of his 2015 ‘Border Force Act’. Previous to this week detention centre workers, including teachers, lawyers and social workers, were threatened with two years in prison if they spoke out about abuse or neg lect. The law was highly controversial, and is currently at the heart of a High Court case, brought on by doctors, who argue that such a law flys in the face of doctors freedom of constiutionally-protected political communication. The law will only now silence information that could compromise Australian security – which Dutton says was the original intent of the law to begin with. Think that smells fishy? You’re not the only one.

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has made 85 recommendations into the justice system. This week, the news focussed on one of the most controversial suggestions, which recommends that priests who hear details of sexual abuse in confession must report the matter. Some Catholics see this as a permanent injury to the protection of confession, while others see it as a moral imperative.

On Monday, the Cassini spacecraft passed through the upper-atmosphere of Saturn for the first time. It will pass through the atmosphere another four times before being pulled in by the planet’s gravity to plunge into Saturn (which is gas) in mid-September. Cassini grabbed some pretty fantastic pictures of Saturn back in May (featured above). You can follow Cassini’s journey live here.

We’ll return on Tuesday with a deep-dive into Australia’s political citizenship debacle.

WTF, North Korea?!

If you have questions about the end of the world, but are too embarrassed to ask them, this post might be useful.

Holy shit, are we all going to die in a nuclear war?

No. We’re not. Nuclear war is a possibility, and it’s probably more of a possibility now than it was six months ago, but as you’ll see, a lot of dominos have to fall before we end up in the worst case scenario position.

Why is North Korea so pissed?

That’s a long and complicated question. I’ll do my best to provide a summary here, but it’s important to note that North Korea is a country with a long history and a complicated set of political affairs. Like all news outlets, we can only ever capture a superficial level of their true history (particularly because North Korea doesn’t let foreign journalists into their country).

25 million people live in North Korea, which is sandwiched between South Korea, China, Russia and Japan – which is one hell of an internationally awkward dinner party.

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The Kim family has run North Korea since 1948, in what can best be described as a cult of personality. Prior to this, Korea existed under colonial Japanese rule – making Japan an enemy of the North to this day.

Kim II Sung led an invasion of South Korea in 1950 with support from the Soviet Union. The US came to help South Korea, and China came to help the North – and that was the Korean War, where more than 5 million people died. Technically, North and South Korea are still at war, separated by a de-militarized zone (DMZ). Both sides have signed a truce, but not a peace treaty.

The US remains friendly with South Korea, which has grown into one of the most technologically progressive countries on the planet. North Korea, meanwhile, has floundered. With the Soviet Union as their main ally, North Korea suffered when the Soviet Union collapsed in the 1990s. This triggered North Korea’s economic collapse, and a horrific famine, that killed up to a million people. This was further exacerbated by a horrific flood that wiped out most of North Korea’s farmable land.

But Kim II Sung was still worshipped as a mighty and powerful ruler (according to their entirely state-funded media). When he died, rule went to his son, Kim Jong II, and then his grandson, the present ruler, Kim Jong Un. They literally and figuratively try to keep up their elder’s image. The country is staggeringly behind the rest of the world. The few reports from the inside that we can get suggest that people are living in desperate poverty. It’s estimated locals are living on $1,800 a year on average.

It’s difficult to estimate just how many locals truly believe in the state propaganda. Still, as media technologies have grown in the last decade, there’s been an increased number of defectors attempting to flee the country.

If they’re so poor, why has North Korea put so much time and cash into developing nukes?

North Korea feels like they need to defend themselves. There are 23,500 US troops stationed on their doorstep in South Korea. The States and other would likely want to remove the Kim family from power. Plus, in recent years, North Koreans have seen what has happened to US enemies who didn’t have nuclear weapons. Iraq’s Saddam Hussein was killed. He had no nukes (even though he said he did). Muammar Qaddafi, Libya’s leader, was also killed after giving up his development of a nuclear program.

Ok, but seriously – why are they pissed at America?

It’s been a big year for American and Korean relationships. And it’s important to realise this isn’t entirely because of Trump. Trump’s diplomatic style is certainly aggressive. He’s a bit more bull-in-a-china-shop compared to Obama’s Jedi-mind-trick style, but the relationship was always going to come to a head sometime soon anyway. The US Secretaries of State and Defence have recently stated, “We are replacing the failed policy of ‘strategic patience’, which expedited the North Korean threat, with a new policy of strategic accountability.”

The fact that the US is so friendly with South Korea really pisses the North off. If it weren’t for the US troops stationed in South Korea, the North would’ve likely invaded again decades ago. Plus, the US does a lot of trade with the South. The North Koreans portray America as imperialists dogs who want to oppress the Korean people.

North Korea is almost entirely dependent on China for its imports and exports (more than 80%). So China is really the backbone of the North Korean economy. Back in February, the big news was that the US had managed to talk China into suspending its coal imports as part of slowing down North Korea’s development of nukes by crippling their economy. Still, if Trump’s errant tweets are to be believed, the US is not thrilled with how this process has gone. According to Trump, China is still showing too much favourability towards North Korea.

And this is one of the key dominos that would need to fall to get into scary territory. It’s not so much the North Korean, United States relationship, it’s actually the State’s relationship with China. If the US and North Korea end up in a war, and China allied with North Korea, we’re off to the races.

 

So why would China want to help North Korea, and not the US? 

Several pretty good reasons when you think about it from their point of view.

If the Kim family falls, it’s problematic for China. Firstly, there would be a whole lot of Korean refugees right on China’s border – a massive issue for China. Secondly, if South Korea and North Korea unify with the State’s help, then China has a whole lot of American troops right on the Chinese border – another massive issue. Thirdly,  if Japan, the US, and South Korea are all worrying about North Korea, it takes the focus off them for the time being. Plus, of course, if China pisses off North Korea, then there’s, you know, the nukes…

Does North Korea have any other friends?

Not really. Well, except for Russia.

Yep, that’s another scary domino.

Russia helps North Korea with some of its economy, providing some trade – although not nearly as much as China. The two countries are friendly enough that it would be difficult to determine who Russia would side with if war broke out.

So when does the shit hit the fan?

In the last couple of weeks, North Korea has openly threatened the United States, and Trump has threatened them in return. As the chess board stands at the moment, North Korea is threatening to bomb Guam – a small island nation that features a strong US military base.

If that happens, says Trump, then it’s an act of war, and no one’s quite sure what happens after that.

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Wait. You said we WEREN’T going to die in a nuclear war. How worried should we be?

The most important thing right now is that North Korea doesn’t bomb Guam. That triggers the start of some pretty scary dominos falling. Recently, Aussie Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull said that they support the US completely. It’s easy for Australians to get mad at this proposition of blindly following Trump into war – but it’s probably more of a strategic move to prove to North Korea that they’d be starting trouble with a group of international allies who could really do some damage. This is also why Trump’s language has been so big on the issue, saying that if Guam is bombed, then North Korea will see fire and fury. They’re trying to scare North Korea into not doing anything.

But as for the bigger picture beyond Guam, the US military believes that North Korea can miniaturise a nuke and put it on a ballistic missile, hitting just about anyone.

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But, as you can see from the image above, the authorities are unsure about how precise or developed these missiles are. It’s far more likely that the North can hit Japan or South Korea. America is currently helping out South Korea and Japan with anti-missile defence technology.

The missiles get the attention, but the North also has one of the largest artillery forces in the world – and if they decided to march into South Korea, the outcome look pretty bleak.

What do we do now?

Wait and be calm. At the moment, this is a war of words. North Korea have many decades of practice in defending themselves. Their actions may seem scary and irrational, but they haven’t done anything in recent memory to deliberately sabotage themselves. Whether they hit Guam or not is a pivot point – and is obviously the focus of a lot of background diplomacy at the moment between all the stake holders.

Australia, for the moment, is safe. China is the big gun here who we need to watch. Russia is the other silent player at the poker table. It is difficult to believe that, despite their words, North Korea would really go for Guam, knowing that they’d be kicking a mighty big hornet’s nest that could ultimately lead to their downfall.

 

Back at the end of the week with the news. If you want to go deeper on this issue, I highly recommend this Vox article (where I sourced the first map) and this Al Jazeera piece (where I got the missile map from). The Guam map was from the Daily Mail.

The image at the top of the article was taken August 10th. It is from the Ministry of People’s Armed Forces rally in Pyongyang in support of North Korea’s stance against the US. It was released by North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency on Aug. 11.

Update: What’s the latest?

North Korea said they’re delaying their attack on Guam for the time being – which is great news for those of us who don’t like world-ending nuclear war. America, Australia and the South Korea will continue with their planned training exercises in the South this week, which will likely piss off the North again.

 

Friday, August 11th

Tensions continue to mount over marriage equality. After the Senate (again) rejected the LNP’s bill for a plebiscite, the government then began procedures with the Australian Bureau of Statistics to have a postal plebiscite. Criticisms are numerous. The result of the process will be legally challengeable and have questionable authority. The postal vote will be voluntary. There are concerns the postal vote will miss younger voters, who are less likely to keep up their electoral enrolment as they move more frequently. More over, there’s a case to be made for the idea that this is not something the Government could actually ask the Bureau of Statistics to do – it might be outside their job description. So a group of advocates are challenging the idea in the High Court.  In the meantime, you have just two weeks to make sure your details are up to date and you’re enrolled. Click here to enrol. If you want the full story, we did a deep dive on this topic on Tuesday, which has now been updated with the latest instalments.

It’s been a war of words this week between North Korea and the USA. Last week, North Korea is said to have successfully completed works on missiles that could hit America (and Australia for that matter), and in their best James Bond villain act, they announced they could put mini nukes on them. Trump fired back with typically aggressive language, which angered North Korea more. North Korea is threatening to hit a US military base in Guam, where 3,831 soldiers are stationed. Military leaders in the US have stated that there is ‘no imminent threat’ to US citizens, but there is reason to be concerned about China, Japan and South Korea, which North Korea also has problems with. For a summary of North Korea and why they’re pissed at everyone, check out our deep dive on the nation next Tuesday.

The Garma Festival has come to a close in Arnham Land, with a huge amount of indigenous elders coming together to discuss the need for Makarrata – a treaty between the Australian Government and Australia’s indigenous people. They impressed upon Prime Minister Turnbull and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten a need for a constitutionally enshrined ‘First Nations’ voice to parliament – a constitutionally recognised body to represent indigenous voices at the heart of government. Malcom Turnbull has ruled out the idea that such a matter would go to a referendum – a national vote – where as Shorten has supported that move. Turnbull said he would take the matter back to the Government for discussion, but on returning to Canberra he was immediately swamped by the marriage equality debate, which has occupied the media this week.

Four coal mines are at risk of closing for not meeting their dust-monitoring standards. They are Glencore’s Oaky North and Oaky No.1 at Tieri, and Anglo’s Moranbah North and Grosvenor. In Moranbah this week, a young father lost his life while at work on a coal mine, leaving behind his son and wife.

19 million eligible voters in Kenya waited for many hours to vote in their national election this week. Raila Odinga has won the election, with independent observers saying the result is legitimate, although they warn against violence in the streets in the coming days.

Fifty or more refugees have been deliberately drowned by people smugglers off the coast of Yemen. The refugees were fleeing Ethiopia and Somalia. The average age of the refugees is 16. A United Nations representative has said that up to 2,405 people have died or disappeared during their attempted to cross the Mediterranean.

Country music superstar Glen Campbell passed away this week at the age of 81. Dolly Parton calls him one of the greatest musicians of all time. Pop on ‘Rhinestone Cowboy’and salute the stars.120126074942-glen-campbell-retro-story-top

Australian Marriage Equality

Everything you wanted to know about a plebiscite, but were afraid to ask…

Why is Australia one of the few remaining developed countries without same-sex marriage?

In the last five years, there’s been a massive upswing in countries legalising same-sex marriage. This has caused renewed pressure on the Australian government to do the same. One of the sticking points for Australian politicians has been whether the matter should be a ‘free vote’ – meaning that individual politicians get to decide for themselves, rather than go along with an official party policy. Up until very recently, both the Australian Labor and Liberal National Party have been reluctant (that is, scared) to form a party policy on the matter of same-sex marriage. Prime Minister Gillard originally said the matter should be a free vote. Kevin Rudd only supported same-sex marriage on his short-lived return to the Prime Ministership in 2013. The Australian Labor Party now officially support same-sex marriage legislation, but they’re no longer the gang in charge – it’s the Liberal National Party.

The LNP government are going through an existential crisis. In the world of Trump and Brexit, what does it mean to be a Conservative party in the 21st century? Tony Abbot is a self-proclaimed conservative, believing in ‘traditional values’ and appealing to the LNP ‘base’ (the right-wing conservatives). Malcom Turnbull, however, has historically been far more centrist in this views. He originally pushed renewable energies, for example, and has been an outspoken supporter of Australia becoming a republic. He’s even supported the idea of same-sex marriage in the past. Both Abbot and Turnbull are part of the same party, which is made up of a wide-ranging mix of views. Same-sex marriage is one of the most sensitive issues for the LNP government. In the last few days, it has threatened to tear them apart.

What’s a plebiscite and where did it come from?

A plebiscite is a public vote. Just like an election, it’s where the Australian public rock up and vote on a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to same-sex marriage. Everyone then sees the results of that vote. Importantly, a plebiscite is non-binding, meaning that Parliament can just take it as advice. They don’t have to do anything about it. Australia has had very few plebiscites. The last one was in 1977 and it was about the National Anthem.

In the 2015 elections, then Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced that the LNP would hold a plebiscite on same-sex marriage if elected. They were elected, and they attempted to pass it. Labor and the Greens blocked it in the Senate back in February, so we didn’t end up with any movement on the issue.

What are the arguments against a plebiscite?

  • It’s expensive. It will cost the tax-payer over $100 million to execute it properly.
  • It’s a big poll with an outcome we already know – that most Australians support marriage equality.
  • It’s a delaying tactic for the LNP government to appear to be moving forward on the issue without actually legislating.
  • There will be a funded ‘yes’ and ‘no’ campaign, creating more division in the country. In particular, young and vulnerable queer people are likely to suffer from such a passionate, public debate that will have very dark corners.

What are the arguments for a plebiscite?

  • It proves to everyone, even the doubters, just how many Australians support or disagree with marriage equality.
  • Those against same-sex marriage don’t necessarily see it as a human right, but as a moral or ethical issue, and therefore not for the Parliament to decide for itself.
  • It allows LNP politicians the chance to not have to risk their careers by going to a free vote. Either way the plebiscite goes, they can turn to their voters, shrug their shoulders, and say ‘the plebiscite made me do it.’
  • Conservatives say that shutting down the plebiscite because of fears of hurting the vulnerable is a slippery slope and political correctness gone mad. Democratic debate is a fundamental  part of our society and opinions should not be silenced.

What now?

Last week, the LNP received new pressure. Four of its members said they would cross the floor on the issue of same-sex marriage – meaning they would go against their party’s official policy. They had heard loud and clear from their electorates that they wanted same-sex marriage to pass. One West Australian MP, Dean Smith, even went so far to write up a bill, ready to put it into Parliament (it resumes this week). Meanwhile, conservative MP’s threatened to walk away from the party if Turnbull changed the official party policy – or to try and chuck Turnbull out of the leadership.

Turnbull did his best to evade questions on the matter last week, and called together the party in a meeting yesterday (Monday) afternoon to decide on what the LNP approach to same-sex marriage should be now that the plebiscite had been knocked back. In the end, only seven MP’s voted for a free vote (out of 86). The vast majority voted to stay with the plebiscite. So, tried to pass the plebiscite again. The attempt failed, and so the LNP went into Plan B – a postal plebiscite, ordering the Australian Bureau of Statistics to organise the voluntary, legally non-binding survey. No one’s very happy about it, and advocates have even taken the matter to the High Court to challenge the idea that the government can even ask the ABS to do such a thing. In the meantime, you’ve got a fortnight to enrol. Click here to do it.

What’s your opinion?

As you can probably tell from this article, I, like most Australians, believe that same-sex marriage is the only way forward. It’s fair and it’s the right thing to do.

It’s obvious that a lot of politicians, even Malcom Turnbull, think so too. It displays a stunning lack of leadership, and a hell of a lot of cowardice, to not stand by what you believe to be right. Instead, the LNP government, under the Prime Minister’s leadership, is choosing to tread water, delay action, and pour fuel on a fire that will burn many vulnerable people. I believe this is all in favour of keeping the LNP ‘united’ with its more conservative voters – so that, come next year’s election, the LNP can turn to its base and say ‘the plebiscite made us put in same sex marriage.’ Because, ultimately, we all know it’s going to happen sooner or later.

Weekly news update on Friday. This post will remain updated with the latest churning on this issue.

 

 

Friday, August 4th

Australia may finally be closer to legalising gay marriage. The gay marriage debate stalled last year when the Government’s attempt to implement a plebiscite on the issue didn’t get up. Now four Liberal Party MP’s have said they would ‘cross the floor’ if a Parliamentary vote on gay marriage was called, meaning they would effectively go against their party’s official policy and vote in favour of equality. There’s been plenty of in-fighting in the Liberal Party since that announcement. Labor might seize the moment next week, and strategically call for a vote on the matter immediately. Turnbull’s called a meeting for his party first thing Monday to reconsider their official position. Studies consistently find that the vast majority of Australians now support marriage equality. (For more on the intricacies of this debate, including just what the frig a plebiscite is and why it’s so problematic, we’ll be doing a deep dive on the issue next Tuesday.)

The Human Rights Commission has released a devastating report on sexual harassment, assault and rape on Australia’s universities campuses. Approximately 6% of all Australian university students have experienced sexual assault or rape on campus. Only 9% of those students reported it to the university. Women are at the highest risk, with 10% of all female students surveyed saying they’ve experienced sexual assault in the last two years. The report outlines a nine step plan for universities to adopt in order to reduce incidents, but the plan has already drawn criticism, as it gives no recommended course of action for dealing with perpetrators of assault.

Spoiler: Trump’s White House is still nuts. He fired his new Communications Director, Anthony Scaramucci this week after just ten days in the job. This comes in the wake of his Press Secretary and Chief of Staff both leaving in the last two weeks. Within 24 hours of getting the job, Scaramucci rang a reporter and unleashed a tirade of ‘off-the-record’ criticism of the administration that had just hired him, saying his colleague Steve Bannon was trying to ‘suck his own cock’. Also, Trump tweeted out this week he was going to ban transgendered people from being allowed into the military. The policy was apparently a shock to the leading US military authorities.

A transcript has leaked of a phone conversation between Turnbull and Trump earlier this year. It shows Trump to be aggressive, insulting, and failing to understand Turnbull’s immigration policy – despite Turnbull’s repeated attempts to explain it to him. The phone call made headlines earlier in the year when Trump publicly wanted to back out of a deal to take 1,200 refugees from Manus and Nauru.

The Commonwealth Bank is being accused of failing to report properly on $77 million worth of laundered cash. The Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre is suing the bank for 53,700 breaches of money laundering and counter-terrorism financing laws. Apparently, some of the ‘smart deposit’ ATM machines have been used by money laundering syndicates to support drug networks.

The week began with news of a foiled terror plot in Sydney. Two men face court today charged with planning to take down a passenger flight. The two have links to the Islamic State in Syria.

The annual Garma Festival is about to start up in Arnham land. Both Bill Shorten and Malcom Turnbull will attend. The Festival is an annual opportunity for a high profile discussion on Indigenous and Torres Strait Island Affairs.

This week saw the passing of British actor Robert Hardy of Harry Potter fame (he played Cornelius Fudge), American actor and famed playwright Sam Shephard and Australian musician Dr G Y–. Download the 2008 ‘Gurrumul’ album and read a Sam Shepherd play if you’ve never given yourself the pleasure. Both are highly recommended.

UPDATE: The name and image of Dr G was removed in line with the family’s wishes. My most sincere apologies to the family for not receiving this message earlier.

Love is the only disease that makes you feel better. -Sam Shepard