Parliamentarians learn about ground-breaking science on debilitating neurological disease

In parliament house in Canberra yesterday, members of federal parliament took the time to listen to world renowned scientists and their ground-breaking findings that explain the debilitating disease myalgic encephalomyelitis, a type of chronic fatigue syndrome. The event focused on a presentation by Griffith University Professors Don Staines and Sonya Marshall-Gradisnik.

The turnout was particularly impressive given the leadership turmoils occupying the headlines and the minds of so many people working in the building. Jokes were made at the beginning and end of the event, confirming that Malcom Turnbull was still the Prime Minister.

The event was hosted by the new Parliamentary Friends of ME/CFS, founded by Greens Senator for Western Australia, Jordon Steele-John and co-chaired by Labor Senator for Queensland, Claire Moore and Liberal Senator for Tasmania Jonathon Duniam.

A range of parliamentarians from across the political spectrum, in both the House of Representatives and the Senate attended, as did policy advisors, members of the academic community, patients and advocates.

Senators Andrew Bartlett, Greens for Queensland; Slade Brockman, Liberal for Western Australia; Jonathon Duniam, Liberal for Tasmania; Jordon Steele-John, Greens for Western Australia; and Claire Moore, Labor for Queensland all attended.

From the House of Representatives, Liberal Member for Dunkley, Chris Crewther; and Labor Member for Canberra, Gai Brodtmann attended. Up to a dozen policy advisors attended from a range of parliamentary officers.

Jordon Steele-John welcomed everyone to the event. Jonathon Duniam introduced the speakers. Don Staines began Griffith’s presentation with some poignant insights into why their research mattered. “It is an honour to present to the representatives of the people, our novel scientific findings” he said. ME/CFS is “a very silent illness, because people are often unable to represent their needs”.

In unpacking the approach of the National Centre for Neuroimmunology and Emerging Diseases, he explained that “the existing science is not yet up to it.” “Patients have experienced extreme stigma and discrimination associated with the lack of known biology”. The aim of the centre’s work was to reduce this stigma by demonstrating the biology of the disease, developing a diagnostic test and identifying therapeutic drugs to manage the disease. He spoke plainly and eloquently for all to understand the gravity of what he was saying.

Sonya Marshall-Gradisnik went through a summary of all the research they have done in three years, explaining what and how they have come to understand the pathology of the disease.

First, they identified a family of genes significantly associated with the disease. Then, they tested these genes, the family of TRPM3 markers, for changes in expression between healthy controls and patients with ME. This gene is found in cells in the central nervous, cardiovascular, digestive, endocrine, immune and excretory and other systems in the body. In this way, they came to understand how so many systems in the body are affected by the disease.

What they found was that the cells containing TRPM3 showed a reduced capacity for the transfer of calcium ions between and within the cells. Calcium ions are vital to cellular energy transfer and proper cell function.

By using gold standard technological processes, they measured the amount of calcium that is stored by and circulated in particular cells. Again, in ME patients, these rates were significantly lower than in healthy controls. This science would explain why many patients describe their experiences as like running on a faulty cellphone battery that doesn’t charge properly and never fully recharges.

TRPM3 are threat receptors. They are triggered by infections (bacterial or viral), perfumes or other chemicals, cell stretching or stress, temperature variation and a range of other factors. This not only explains some of the onset factors for ME, but also some of the triggers patients experience after contracting the disease.

Don Staines explained that, given these findings, we could see that “recommendations to exercise patients are wrong” because it only places greater demand for calcium ions in the cells. This also explains why patients who meet the diagnostic criteria defined in the Canadian Consensus Criteria or the International Consensus Primer would in fact be worsened by a regime of Graduated Exercise Therapy. While patients who experienced the symptom of chronic fatigue without meeting these criteria may experience some improvement.

As for recommendations to treat patients with Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, Sonya Marshall-Gradisnik said she was “not aware of any psychological treatment that can effect calcium ion transmitters”.

Attendees were keen to know what policy makers could do to help researchers and patients. The sample sizes of the studies undertaking so far were about 200 people. To allow all Australian patients to contribute to the study (and vastly increase the value of the science by increasing the sample size), the centre will need $13 million. So far, they have raised half of this money through philanthropic donations. They asked the parliamentarians to support federal government funding for the remaining $6.5 million.

Recommendations also came to ensure government policies and guidelines are updated to account for this research, helping reduce the personal, financial and social burden of the disease on patients. While no specific mention was made of the National Disability Insurance Scheme or Disability Support Pension, ongoing discussions will address some of these issues. There was, however, an explicit call to remove GET and CBT recommendations from policies including guidelines of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners.

While Don and Sonya were loathe to provide timelines on their advances for diagnostic testing and therapeutic drugs, they explained they were working with a leading Australian pathology service provider with a timeline of three years for both projects.

At the end of proceedings Claire Moore closed the event with a call to action for policy makers while paying tribute to the good work that Scott Ludlum had done in this space. Significant networking between parliamentarians, policy advisors, other researchers and patients occurred before everyone dispersed. Overall, it was an incredibly worthwhile event and impressively successful, especially given the amount of attention being diverted for leadership contentions within the government.

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Aussie hands and arms in the war on Yemen

I do love #TheFrant. Last week Jan Fran did a great explainer of the horrific crisis in Yemen, including Australia’s involvement.

The crisis in Yemen was catalysed by military operations of a Saudi led coalition involving the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Jordan and seven other countries. Over 20 000 have died in the war which has led to the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis”.

Two thirds of the population are in need of humanitarian assistance. Seven million people don’t know where their next meal is coming from and one child under the age of 5 dies every 10 minutes of preventable causes.

But Australia has both hands and arms in the crisis.

Former special forces hand retired Major General Mike Hindmarsh is now the head of the UAE’s army unit providing troops in Yemen. Earlier this month, reports surfaced that these troops have been using physical, psychological and sexual torture against Yemeni detainees in prisons across the country.

Since the beginning of the war in Yemen, Australia’s defence exports to countries in the Saudi led coalition has vastly increased. The Australian government has granted 16 licences to export defence goods to Saudi Arabia and potentially 33 licences for defence exports to the UAE.

They have also authorised exports of small arms, armoured vehicles and battleships to Oman and Jordan. A Tasmanian designed and built catamaran was damaged in the conflict while supplying UAE troops in Yemen.

We know that during this period, there has been a multi-billion dollar spike, almost a doubling, in the total value of Australia’s defence exports.

But what the government is refusing tell us is what exactly, has been authorised for sale to Saudi Arabia. Is it rockets, other munitions, military vehicles, or something else entirely, military chemicals perhaps?

When South Australian Senator Alex Gallacher asked the government what type of goods have been authorised for export to Saudi Arabia since April 2016, Defence refused to provide in that most basic of information.

In Freedom of Information requests, both Defence, who are responsible for authorising defence exports; and Home Affairs, who keep records of what is actually exported, hide behind commercial confidentiality.

Kellie Tranter, lawyer and human rights activist, questions how the government could legitimately claim this information needs to be commercial in confidence. “The information sought is now purely historical data and not specific to any individual supplier, so it is hard to see how any player in the market could claim to be adversely affected by its disclosure.”

The lack of transparency and accountability is unacceptable. It also contravenes the intent of the Arms Trade Treaty which Foreign Minister Julie Bishop so championed and ratified in 2014. At the time, she said even small numbers of illicit weapons can be incredibly destabilising.

Under the treaty, the government must assess proposed exports and refuse an export licence when the goods are likely to be used in serious breaches of human rights.

Transparency and human rights go to the very core of the treaty and countries are expected to provide annual reports on implementation. But there are concerning holes in the content of Australia’s reports.

At the moment, Defence is undertaking an independent review of the legislation governing defence exports. But it is unknown if the report will discuss the governance issues and requirements to meet our human rights obligations.

Under the government’s new policy to increase defence exports, the situation is looking even worse. The government are investing billions of dollars into the Export Finance and Insurance Corporation (EFIC) to facilitate arms deals with the very countries that have the most woeful human rights records. Recent reports indicate that they too will be immune from public scrutiny.

If the existing government processes for defence exports have allowed such authorisations, the system is fundamentally flawed. The government cannot justify exporting arms to countries responsible for the horrendous situation in Yemen. The parliament urgently needs to undertake a review of Australian defence exports, in line with our obligations under the Arms Trade Treaty.

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If you would like to take action on this issue, Amnesty International Australia has a petition calling on the government to stop allowing defence exports to countries fighting in Yemen. Visit their website to sign now.

I was hit by a car

Yes, I was hit by a car; a white courier van to be precise. Of all the things I’ve imagined in my life, this was not one of them. It happened two weeks ago to the day. I was crossing Northbourne Ave, Canberra’s main northern arterial, at an intersection beset by roadworks and temporary alterations. I saw the car about to hit me, then it hit me and I was on the road on my back in extreme pain.

Luckily for me, my mobility scooter seems to have acted as a crumple zone, being the most significant thing to break in the crash. I remember being very distressed as I lay there on the road: worried about that mobility scooter that had been kindly donated to me because the NDIS had refused my application for assistance; the driver of the van because I imagined he’d have seen me right up in his windscreen and I thought that would have been terribly traumatic; and the bottle of shampoo I’d just bought with the last of the money in my bank account because I was due to be interviewed the next day and I didn’t want to have greasy hair.

There were so many people at the scene. One lovely lady who’d been waiting in her car when I was hit was a nurse, she pulled a blanket from her car and stayed by my side, making sure I didn’t pass out. I held her hand so tight I think she may have been in pain herself. When I explained how my disability made me incredibly sensitive to sound, the fireman on the scene gave me their (amazing) earmuffs to block out the cacophony. The ambulance arrived in quick time, took good care of me and rushed me to hospital.

I was incredibly impressed by the trauma team at the Canberra hospital who listened to me, and changed their regular routine in response to my sensory sensitivity. I was scanned and x-rayed quick smart, each of my damaged extremities imaged and assessed. Lucy, the trauma nurse, looked after me incredibly well. The whole team made me feel safe, secure and calm, despite the crazy situation. When I asked, for sentimental reasons, if they could not cut off the t-shirt I was wearing, they didn’t even bat an eye. I thought that showed great kindness. I told them it was a shirt I bought when I travelled Africa with one of my high school girlfriends, when my life was better. We did, however, cut off my bra.

‘The T-shirt’ from better days, as seen on my birthday in our friends’ village in Uganda

The only bone that was broken was my right thumb, but everything hurt and the only limb that worked properly was my left arm. I am right handed. While I guessed getting hit by a car would hurt, after a week when my legs still didn’t work and the pain in my thighs woke me screaming in the night, I started to wonder what exactly was wrong in my body. Bones aren’t the only things that can break in the body, but I hadn’t realised the ‘soft tissue’ in my thighs had such depth that it could be the source of such deep pain! A few days later, I thought the pain must surely start to dissipate, but it just kept evolving like some cruel sorcerer.

I suffer from a debilitating condition called ME/CFS. I am sensitive to sound, cognitive overload and too much physical activity. Each of these triggers leaves me unable to walk, talk and even think. I wear noise cancelling headphones to help manage that sensory input, but construction sounds set off an acute physical reaction in my body; reducing my capacity to absorb information and make decisions. That day, riding my scooter down the footpath beside Northbourne Ave, I had passed an angle grinder, a concrete saw and an electric edge trimmer. I knew my body wasn’t functioning well. I had traversed many detours and intersections altered by roadworks. When I approached the intersection at which I needed to cross, I was confused by where I was supposed to cross and where the lights were. I observed the traffic: saw two lanes of stationary cars and the third lane was empty. When a pedestrian crossed ahead of me, I crossed the intersection.

 

I was barely a meter out from the island when I saw the white van was about to hit me. Then it hit me. If the van’s windscreen/bonnet formed an angle like 1 o’clock, I remember hitting it at midday till about 10 o’clock. That time frame is the scene that ran in instant replay in my dreams in the following weeks. I don’t remember much more from that 10 o’clock till I was on the road, I wonder if I bounced, before landing on my back with my knees up. The driver ran out. I remember he asked if I was OK and somehow, possibly sarcastically, I said ‘NO! Call an ambulance!’ he started telling everyone he’d been driving at 60km/h.

Later, I looked up the stats. People who are hit at 60km/h have an eighty five percent chance of dying. I only broke my thumb. Don’t get me wrong, my pain and suffering have been intense. But I also feel incredibly lucky. Wonderful friends, family, feminists and colleagues have all be generous in the support they have shown. A complete stranger even cut my hair in my hospital room so I wouldn’t have to worry about trying to keep the birds nests out of it and wash it when my body was so pained.

But I had diminished capacity when I crossed that intersection and the investigators have recorded the accident as my fault. So I will not be able to claim the government insurance scheme designed to cover pedestrians and other third parties in road accidents. My mobility scooter was donated to me by a small businessman when the one I inherited was flooded earlier in the year. My noise cancelling headphones were destroyed. I have no money and no insurance. In addition to needing to heal from the crash, spending weeks in hospital, and then post hospital treatment (for which I cannot pay), I have lost the key tools that help me exist in the world, exist with a disability and still participate and contribute to society.

I need help to recover. An old friend of mine has started a gofundme page to help get me back on my feet, so to speak. That scooter was worth $6000, new headphones cost $400. Post-hospital osteopathy will cost an average of $140 per session (per week). I need to move out of my third floor flat into a ground floor place with disability access and have no money for removalists or the standard ‘deep clean.’ The gofundme page aims to raise $10000. Please help, donate if you can and spread the word.

Gendered insecurity in the Rohingya crisis

Last month, Human Rights Watch released a report confirming that the Burmese security forces “have committed widespread rape against women and girls as part of a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Rohingya Muslims in Burma’s Rakhine State” since 25 August 2017. The report found that the actions of the military, border police and ethnic Rakhine militias amount to crimes against humanity under international law.

Although there is no legally agreed definition of ethnic cleansing, the description developed by a UN Commission of Experts holds significant sway. They described ethnic cleansing as ‘a purposeful policy designed by one ethnic or religious group to remove by violent and terror-inspiring means the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group from certain geographic areas.’ The events of September and October have certainly served to remove Rohingyas from northern Rakhine State.

In early December, the International Committee of the Red Cross, one of the very few international organisations with access to effected areas inside Myanmar, reported that “formerly energetic communities and village tracts are suddenly empty. Life continues for those that remain, but in certain parts of Maungdaw and Sittwe, there is a pervasive sense of absence.”

MSF have now also released extensive testimonies from survivors on the killing, arson and sexual violence they have experienced. Ninety percent of the survivors of sexual violence treated by MSF were attacked after 25 August. Fifty per cent of survivors are under the age of 18, including several under the age of ten.

Early reports of the number of pregnant women and new mothers in the refugee population could have been used as an indicator of increased conflict related sexual violence and ethnic cleansing. While the accuracy of the data and a heightened tendency for pregnant women to flee may both affect the analysis, the matrix of indicators of conflict-related sexual violence developed in response to UN Security Council Resolution 1888 identifies an increase in cases of unwanted pregnancy as an indicator of ongoing sexual violence. International non-governmental organisation Ipas, began increasing its response to the crisis, providing trainers to ‘provide on-site training for health workers in postabortion care’.

That same matrix also reminds us that the increasing ‘statements from doctors, war surgeons, gynaecologists and/or medical NGOs that they are increasingly seeing rape-related injuries’ are an indicator of ongoing sexual violence. As early as September, doctors from the International Organization for Migration, as well as a range of UN agencies and non-governmental organisations, reported high numbers of patients with physical injuries that are consistent with violent sexual attacks, including forced penetration and lacerations to the vagina.

In the two weeks immediately proceeding the crisis, the lead UN agency on sexual and gender based violence (UNFPA), provided services to 3500 Rohingya refugee women who had been sexually assaulted. It is incredibly difficult to gather large-scale data on sexual violence in emergencies, but we do know that only 7 percent of women subjected to sexual violence during the conflict in East Timor reported it, and only 6 percent of rape victims during the Rwandan genocide sought medical treatment. If the women and girls who have reported to those health clinics represent 6 percent of victims, they would be the tip of just one iceberg comprising 58,300 women and girls.

If we had used a gendered lens to analyse the unfolding crisis from the outset, we would have had a better comprehension of the ethnic cleansing that was occurring from the outset. This could have better informed humanitarian and international legal responses. A new comment in the Australian Journal of International Affairs unpacks reported figures of pregnant women who are seeking refuge in Bangladesh in an attempt to understand some of the gendered dimensions of the conflict. It proposes possible reasons for the presence of a high proportion of pregnant and lactating women in the refugee population, and goes on to reflect on indications of increased conflict-related sexual violence and ethnic cleansing. It shows that, while failings in the quality of data in emergencies mean it cannot be relied on as the basis for rigorous conclusions about the gendered nature of conflict, when taken with qualitative reports, and compared with other emergencies, gendered data can be used to build a better understanding of the conflict.

In the first two weeks of the Rohingya crisis, UNICEF reported that an unprecedented portion of the refugees fleeing to Bangladesh were children. The Chief of Child Protection for UNICEF in Bangladesh, Jean Lieby announced that preliminary data showed that 60 percent of the arriving refugees were children, who were often unaccompanied. Such extreme family separation can be an indicator of the degree of chaos and of rate of adult deaths. This second indication is reinforced by the fact the next largest age group of refugees are the elderly. UNICEF also reported that 67 percent of the refugees are female. Combined, this could indicate fighting age males had been targeted in Myanmar.

In mid-September, the Bangladesh Ministry of Health reported that approximately 70,000 of the Rohingya refugees who have arrived since August were pregnant or new mothers. This would represent a staggering 20.8 percent of the female population. Despite the high birth rates among Rohingya communities, we know that Rohingya women have an average of 3.8 children in their lifetime, we would expect only 6.9 percent of the female Rohingya refugee population to be pregnant or breastfeeding. The Bangladesh home minister has said that 90 percent of the refugee women have been raped. That would equate to over 335,600 people.

Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch, said that “the level of hatred and extreme violence—especially towards women and children” is driven by dehumanisation and racism. Because the Rohingya have been described as “too dirty” for soldiers to rape, he believes there is no doubt that “the majority of the women who were raped were killed.” The organisation has drawn connections between what is happening to the Rohingya in Rakhine State and what occurred during the genocide in Rwanda.

Indeed, a comparison of the above data on the Rohingya refugees to that which we saw in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide provided an early indicator of ethnic cleansing in Rakhine State. UN reporting in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide indicated that the genocide had so rapidly altered the demographics that 60–70 percent of the population was female. It was estimated that the Rwandan refugee population exceeded pre-war fertility. In the immediate aftermath, this was presumed to be the case because of the high number of men who were killed during the genocide. Adolescent and adult males under the age of 45 were the primary targets in the early stages of the Rwandan genocide. There were also “indications that attempts to exterminate women, girls and the elderly eventually encountered significant popular opposition”. But sexual violence was a key feature of the Rwandan genocide. Although, as in the Rohingya case, the majority of rape victims were then killed, most recent estimates indicate that in excess of 20,000 Rwandan children were born from genocidal rape.

It is hoped that the new comment in the Australian Journal of International Affairs, and the general analysis described here, will serve as a reminder of the importance of gendered, cross-disciplinary research to accurately understand forces of peace and conflict in the world, and to inform appropriate policy responses such as humanitarian assistance and international legal action.

Feminist analysis of Australia’s emerging security architecture

This post was originally published on 23 August, on the blog of BroadAgenda 50/50

Despite an emerging international movement for feminist foreign policies, it’s not often we publicly discuss feminist views of national security. Over the past five years, the Australian Government has been grappling with the implementation of a whole-of-government policy on Women, Peace and Security (WPS). That policy, the National Action Plan on WPS, is currently due for renewal. But last week, the Australian government announced a major change to Australia’s national security architecture which aligns a range of problematic policy and practice decisions that ignore the views and experiences of women nationally, in the region, and internationally.

Now is the time for a feminist analysis of Australia’s emerging security architecture including a gendered approach to counter terrorism, dealing with foreign fighters and the new home affairs arrangements including women in immigration detention and gendered police support programs in the Pacific.

Australia’s National Action Plan on WPS was developed to integrate Australia’s obligations under a suite of Security Council resolutions on the topic of WPS. The WPS resolutions recognise that men and women experience conflict differently, and that accounting for women’s experiences of conflict and insecurity is vital to achieving sustainable peace and security.

Most recently, the Security Council passed resolution 2242, calling on member states to better integrate WPS into their strategies for countering violent extremism and counter-terrorism. That resolution also urged member states to “strengthen access to justice for women in conflict and post-conflict situations, including through the prompt investigation, prosecution and punishment of perpetrators of sexual and gender-based violence.”

Gendered war crimes have been the hallmark of Da’esh who have kidnapped women, published entire doctrines on the use of sex slaves, and thrown LGBTQI people off rooftops for their sexuality. Rape has been perpetrated as war crimes and has been so widespread that it constitutes a crime against humanity. Furthermore, sexual violence has been used as constituent of genocide against the Yazidis. Of the tens of thousands of foreign fighters who fight with Da’esh in Iraq and Syria, many come from countries like Australia that criminalise sexual violence as war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.

One such fighter is Khaled Sharrouf who is known to have purchased Yazidi women at a slave market, held them captive, and forced them into sexual slavery. However, rather than meeting Australia’s international obligation to investigate and prosecute him for these crimes, the Minister for Immigration revoked his citizenship, abdicating our obligation for non-recurrence and supporting impunity for conflict related sexual violence.

Recent updates to data laws in Australia give intelligence and law enforcement agencies an unprecedented volume of information to prevent terrorist activity. However, the system continues to fail to adequately analyse the information at hand. Dr Anne Aly MP, noted that ahead of the Lindt café siege, Man Haron Monis exhibited the three behavioural traits that indicate a serious terrorist threat. Fixation: a pathological preoccupation with a person or cause; identification: a warrior mentality that includes narcissistic fantasies; and leakage: communication either to a third party or to the public of intent to commit violence.

There is a strong correlation between perpetration of domestic violence and modern terrorist activity. Sociological research has shown domestic terrorist groups are now more likely to show behaviours to reassert male dominance. This is a common pattern of behaviour in perpetrators of domestic violence. We know that Man Haron Monis has been charged with the murder of his former wife. Many other cases exist including one of the London Bridge terrorists abuse of his wife. But the Australian government continues to underfund the domestic violence services that make victims feel safe enough to report their abusers. Similarly, since 2015, the government has spent a mere three percent of what it did on counterterrorism, on the community sector programs that counter or prevent violent extremism.

In 2015, the Australian Senate heard that thirty-three asylum seekers alleged they had been raped or sexually assaulted at the immigration detention centre on Nauru. Given the centre on Nauru was only host to a hundred or so women and children, this figure is staggeringly high. Policy and government responses to the safety, health and wellbeing of refugees and asylum seekers in detention remain inadequate. The most shocking case was the refusal to provide sexual and reproductive health care to a Somali woman who fell pregnant when she was raped in detention.

The head of ASIO recently explained that he saw no relationship between refugees and asylum seekers coming to Australia and incidents of terrorism. But the government has decided to bring the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, that has overseen these gross breaches of women’s security, into a mega Department of Home Affairs designed to ‘improve’ Australia’s security.

Meanwhile, the Australian Federal Police (AFP) undertake a range of operations beyond merely securing our borders and counterterrorism.  The AFP are a key national tool in supporting the rules based global order. They participate in UN peacekeeping operations and undertake significant police support programs in the Pacific. Some of these programs are aimed at improving women’s participation in the police force as well as better responding to and reducing incidence of violence against women. Will these programs be reduced under a new strategic direction based on the concept of a ‘Home Office’?

In short, the merging of departments and agencies into the mega Department of Home Affairs, as well as the ministerial leadership chosen to run the new department, show scant regard for gender justice, women’s rights and the rule of law and admonishes women’s agency and expertise.

Where’s the Governor-General when you need him in a constitutional crisis?

Governor-General, Sir Peter Cosgrove AK MC

The power of the Governor-General is prescribed in the constitution and detailed in constitutional practice.  While the Governor-General customarily acts on the advice of relevant ministers communicated through the Federal Executive Council, there are times when the Governor-General can act without, or contrary to that advice. Overall, the Governor-General has the responsibility of  ensuring the execution and maintenance of the constitution.

The Coalition currently holds 76 seats in the lower house, the minimum number required to form government. Barnaby Joyce MP and Senators Fiona Nash and Matt Canavan, all of the National Party, currently have cases before the High Court to determine if their dual citizenship precludes them from holding federal office.

Section 44 of the constitution is worded to ensure no federal member is beholden to a foreign power. There may be some room for interpretation for individuals who unwittingly held dual citizenship with another country whose head of state is also Queen Elizabeth II. Can one truly be considered beholden to a foreign power if said power has the same head of state as Australia? However, there is no room for such interpretation when the dual citizenship is held with a country outside the Commonwealth. For example, the meaning of the constitution would be quite clear if someone were a dual national of Italy, as is Matt Canavan.

On the face of it however, all three members appear to be in breach of Section 44 of the constitution. Their eligibility to sit in parliament could not be subject to more serious questioning. Remaining in cabinet under such conditions is phenomenally irregular. However, the High Court is unlikely to make a decision before October. Then, if Barnaby Joyce is ineligible to hold office, his seat would likely be re-decided in a by-election.

In the mean time, could the government itself be considered unconstitutional? If Barnaby Joyce is ineligible then the Coalition only holds 75 seats in the lower house. It has been reported that when parliament next sits, if Joyce doesn’t refrain from voting, Labor will seek to have all votes deferred. Is this a basis on which the Governor-General can be assured of the Coalition’s ability to maintain government?

More broadly, in section 64, the constitution also states that no minister can hold office for any longer than three months without being elected to parliament. While common law protects the decisions made by those who thought they were acting out the duties of their rightful office, neither Joyce nor Nash have resigned from cabinet since learning of their predicament. As such, the decisions they make moving forward cannot fairly be interpreted as made while thinking they were performing duties of rightful office.

Given such a constitutional crisis, where is the Governor-General and what is he saying on the issues at play? At present, it seems the Prime Minister, and the government more broadly are waiting for the High Court to decide the fate of the suite of parliamentarians who have discovered they are dual citizens.  The High Court is unlikely to make a decision before October. However, especially considering the number of individuals who have not resigned, but retained their office and in some cases, cabinet positions, the time has come for greater oversight and employment of the responsibilities of the Governor-General.

Super department a bad sign for justice and the rule of law

Earlier today, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced the launch of a new ‘super department’ along the lines of the UK Home Office or the US Department of Homeland Security.

The move was not recommended by the recent review of the national security architecture by respectected Michael Le’Strange, was not endorsed by cabinet and has split the National Security Committee. The new department will capture the Australian Secret Intelligence Organisation, the Australian Federal Police, Border Force and the Department of Immigration. It will be headed by the Immigration Minister Peter Dutton.

Many commentators have argued the only reason to create such a department is political, providing Peter Dutton with additional power as a means of steering him away from a leaderahip challenge. Although the government has not stated what benefits such a department would bring to national security, the new department would presumably be responsible for strategic planning and coordination of the agencies in its purvue. This is most concerning. 

The Australian Federal Police has historically been under the remit of the Justice Minister with a strong relationship to the Attorney-General’s Department. The Australian Federal Police are not only used for counter-terrorism and border control activities. The AFP has personnel deployed on operations all over the globe including on peace support operations with the United Nations. They are a significant tool in Australia’s strategic investment in a rules based global order more closely aligned with the work of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Australian Defence Force.

On the other hand, Border Force and Australia’s immigration policies, particularly those relating to refugees and asylumn seekers, are broadly condemned as breaching international legal norms and human rights standards.

The AFP are the authority responsible for investigating and prosecuting such international crimes as war crimes, crimes against hanity and genocide when they fall under Australian jurisdiction. Each of these crimes is outlined under domestic legislation and has been included in the Criminal Code Act. Even though it is known that Australians have perpetrated these crimes while fighting with Da’esh in Iraq and Syria, no investigations of prosecutions have yet occurred. 

Indeed, rather than meeting our obligations to investigate and prosecute these crimes, Australia has supported impunity for sexual violence in armed conflict by revoking the citizenship of a key perpetrator known to have committed these crimes. That decision was made by the very man now given authority over all the agencies within thisnew department.

Amy Maguire has argued that Australia’s human rights obligations now need to be rechecked under the new departmental structure. I could not agree more.