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.

The trouble with Trump’s populism

Today, the United States has a new President. At the inauguration of President Donald Trump, he gave a speech drawing on the many populist lines he used during the election campaign. There is one common thread between the words spoken by Obama and by Trump. Both men talk about the presidency as the people.

Obama talks about his presidency as by the people, continuing to pay homage to the community organisers who worked to turn the democratic agenda we see in his campaigns, into reality. Key themes of the Obama presidency were change and hope. In his farewell address at Chicago, after reminding people of the key achievements of the administration he said “that’s what you did.  You were the change.  You answered people’s hopes.” He closed with another call of faith. “I am asking you to believe.  Not in my ability to bring about change – but in yours.”

Trump talks about his presidency as for the people. In his inauguration address, Trump said the day marked a “transferring power from Washington, D.C.” to “you, the people.” He said the recent victories of politicians “have not been your victories; their triumphs have not been your triumphs; and while they celebrated in our nation’s Capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land.”

But when Obama spoke about “the quiet dignity of working people in the face of struggle and loss” there seems to be an honesty to his words. Despite having graduated from the best schools in America, Obama’s roots in community organising show he has an empathy that seems a stark contrast to Trump. It is his policies that have meant health care costs are rising at the slowest rate in 20 years. It is his policies that bought America back from a great recession. It was under his government that unemployment was cut in half and the American economy saw the strongest two years of job growth since the ’90s.

When Trump said “the wealth of our middle class has been ripped from their homes and then redistributed across the entire world” there is a hollowness to his words. Trump, born a billionaire went on to say that “we will follow two simple rules: buy American and hire American.” However, he could not even manage to have his own campaign made in America. The ubiquitous red ‘Make America Great Again’ caps that dotted the crowd and were a hallmark of his campaign, were made in China, Viet Nam and Bangladesh.

(Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

(Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

“What truly matters is not which party controls our government, but whether our government is controlled by the people. January 20th 2017, will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again. The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer. Everyone is listening to you now.” Who does he think he’s listening to? The 20 million Americans who will lose their health insurance when he revokes the Affordable Care Act? The majority of voters who cast their ballot for the policies and personality of Hillary Clinton? No doubt the line is actually an allusion to the so called ‘silent majority’ who surprised the pollsters by voting for Trump.

But when Trump went on to say that “that a nation exists to serve its citizens.” He also said “Americans want great schools for their children, safe neighborhoods for their families, and good jobs for themselves.” Herein lies the ultimate conundrum of Trump’s populism. A nation that exists to serve its citizens is one that welcomes the tired, the poor and the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” When the majority runs the country, what happens to the tired, the poor and the oppressed? What happens to the disabled and others with disadvantage?

Trump has appointed a Secretary of Education with no experience in education or public policy. Businesswoman, heiress and billionaire Betsy DeVos is an advocate for privatisation in education. With no experience working for students with disadvantage or on education inclusion she shows little prospects of addressing the chronic debt problem restricting millions of Americans’ access to tertiary education and at her confirmation hearing she was unable to support federal protections for children with disabilities to access education.

Trumps policy and staff choices also show little sign of being suitable for addressing key public safety concerns. Reducing gun violence and the number of people of colour shot by police must be a priority for public safety. Every day four children and teens are murdered with a gun, thirty two are shot in assaults and eight are shot unintentionally. In 2015, there were 372 mass shootings, killing 475 people and wounding 1,870. Sixty four shootings occurred in schools. According to data from 2013, incidents in schools and businesses represent seven out of ten active shootings. In 2015, young black men were nine times more likely than other Americans to be killed by police officers. Despite making up only two percent of the population, black men between 15-34 years old make up more than fifteen percent of all deaths from the use deadly force by police. Addressing this problem requires nuanced approach to policy and practice for race relations and law enforcement.

Thankfully, the market has shown signs of supporting Trumps efforts to create ‘good jobs.’ Hopefully, his efforts to regenerate national infrastructure and support a return of manufacturing will alleviate some of the poverty experienced in the rust belt, where a large portion of Trump supporters voted for him. How effectively Trump can achieve this, and what he does to ensure wealth is distributed across the country and reduce rising income inequality remains to be seen.

A woeful year for women

Let’s face it; 2016 has been a pretty shitty year for women at home and internationally. We have come so close, but are still so far from equality and sometimes, the closer you are, the more painful the absence feels. Then sometimes the gross violence is just sickening.

It started on shaky ground when three of finalists for Australian of the Year were all champions of gender equality: Liz Broderick, Cate McGregor and David Morrison. Then there was bitter disappointments when the Federal Government slashed funding for domestic violence services. Internationally, we have seen ongoing impunity for gross sexual violence in terrorism and armed conflict in the Middle East. The UN Security Council failed to select any one of a fine range of qualified and politically suitable female candidates for Secretary General, and voters in the US elected a misogynist rather than a women for president.

As we know, the Australian of the Year award was given to David Morrison whose primary efforts for gender equality were when he was the senior leader of a large, mixed gender workforce; the Australian Army. While militaries continue to be largely hyper-masculine organisations primarily made up of men (the Australian Defence Force comprises fifteen percent women and the Army twelve percent) he was none the less, employed and appropriately remunerated to lead the Army through the strategic challenges of the day. That leadership should most definitely include an organisational culture that treated women not just as equals worthy of respect, but as valuable contributors to the team.

So Australia’s most public civic recognition was not given to the trans woman who wrote the speech David Morrison is most famous for, nor the woman who developed and implemented the necessary change regime to bring about the required organisational culture for women in defence, but a very privileged, white, middle aged, military man who was already well paid and recognised for his work in the area.

David Morrison is a wonderful individual: a wonderful human being and a wonderful man. I have met him on several occasions and been impressed by his critical insight into gender issues and military culture. However, his recognition came at the cost of recognising a woman who has worked tirelessly on these issues her whole life, bringing about the most comprehensive and effective change regime needed to develop a respectful, just workplace rooted in equality. His recognition came at the expense of a ground-breaking trans woman who has struggled with a wide range of prejudices and spoken with a clear and articulate voice not just on issues of gender equality, but also in her chosen professional field: strategy and defence (and cricket, but that’s a separate issue).

These issues go to the key feminist criticism of the He For She movement. While men’s support for gender equality is vital and appreciated, it cannot come in the form of taking space and recognition from women. Male allies must champion gender equality side by side with women. Often that means they need to cede space to competent, clever and articulate women. They need to use their privilege, their agency, their platform to amplify the voice of those with less privilege.

After a year of Rosie Batty’s indefatigable campaigning on domestic violence, the Federal Government slashed funding to the community legal centres which largely help victims of family violence. These funding cuts came despite a report by the Productivity Commission showing every dollar invested in community legal centres saved the community $18 further down the line. Then, in repeated insults to community sector workers, campaigners and affected women, the government boasted about insufficient piecemeal funding rounds as ‘evidence’ to their support for “ending the scourge of domestic and family violence and sexual assault”.

It is thought that by the end of the year, 71 women died violently in Australia.  The most recent of those was a woman in her 30s, stabbed in the neck by a 40 year old man in the mediation room of a West Australian courthouse; a place where women and their children should be safe. Additional pressures this year mean that women are often staying or returning to unsafe situations, even if they have reported violence. Moo Baluch, chief executive of Domestic Violence NSW noted that “there are more people living one pay packet away from homelessness. Poverty and homelessness is growing – we know those things contribute to family violence.”

Internationally, we have seen the rise of a terrorist organisation that has used sexual violence in war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, with seeming impunity. 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. Even as western backed forces battled to retake Mosul, no consideration was given to the thousands of Yazidi women kidnapped and held captive by Da’esh as sex slaves. Activists believe more than 3000 Yazidi women remain captive today and demand justice, including operations to free those held captive. But so far, no one is responding to their pleas.

In October, the United Nations appointed its ninth Secretary General. Fifty-two nations had joined a campaign to ensure a woman was appointed to the position. Known as the #She4SG campaign, it kicked off in earnest in March 2015. Even the current Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon, had said it was “high time” a woman was appointed to the role. A total of seven highly competent and qualified women were candidates at various points in a race that was unprecedented in its openness. But none of those women was appointed to the UN’s top job.

The position was given to a white man from Western Europe, exactly what the appointee was not supposed to be. Western Europe has more Secretary Generals than any other regional group. Eastern Europe has had none. Two exceptionally qualified and competent female candidates were nominated from that region. Much to the consternation of many, they were unsuccessful. If the position could have been filled by someone from outside Eastern Europe, there were a range of valuable female candidates from Latin America and it has been a long time since a Secretary General came from that region. If the post could be filled by someone from Western Europe, there a valuable candidate from our own region (still classified in the Western Europe grouping). Former Prime Minister of New Zealand, and current head of the UN’s development program, Helen Clarke, was the most popular candidate among UN staff.

The Security Council, who recommends the successful candidate for the General Assembly to approve, said that Antonio Guterres was the candidate who they felt most confident and familiar with. As head of the UN refugee agency, Guterres has often appeared before the Council. But the issues dealt with by other candidates, female candidates, who head different parts of the UN or international organisations, do not come before the Council. Which begs the question, is Guterres’ appointment any more than a very public product of the patriarchal ‘boys club’?

He will likely make an exceptional Secretary General, and has already taken great strides to fill his senior leadership team with strong, capable and diverse women. But we remain sorely overdue for a woman to lead the United Nations.

Last, but not least of course, is the presidential election in the US. Electoral data continues to trickle in, shedding light on who voted for whom. But a vast number of women in the US, and internationally, remain flabbergasted that rather than electing a women president, US voters chose to elect a man with pending fraud and rape charges who had publicly degraded women so often, so grossly and so broadly that it is thought his behaviour has been normalised.

Of course, the election was not run or decided solely on gender grounds. Arguments remain that Americans wanted a candidate who spoke to domestic economic issues. In a system of voluntary voting, people really only turn up to vote when they feel passionately about one candidate or the other. So, had the Democratic National Convention chosen Bernie Sanders as their candidate, the result may have been very different. While many campaigners were excited at the prospects of their first woman president, many of Bernie’s policies and speeches were far more progressive and supportive of women than Hillary’s. But in patriarchal system such as politics, it is because of her sex, that Hillary would have been unable to say many of the pro-women things that Bernie did.

And so, while 2016 was a terrible year for women, we now face 2017 with a US President who sexually objectifies his own daughter, has called for women to be punished for having abortions, shows scant regard for legal or respectful behaviour of men towards women, and has already sought advice on who works on global women’s issues in the State Department.

At home, we see backwards steps in paid parental leave, the key policy that can effectively shape the gender pay gap by encouraging men to take on more care work, and allowing women the flexibility of early child care without having to too much financial burden or to leave the workforce entirely and continue their drop down the career and pay ladder.

Good riddance to 2016, but we have our work cut out for us in the year ahead!

An Open Letter to Hillary Clinton

Dear Hillary,

When I was 11, I told my father I wanted to be president of the United States. He told me, without hesitation, that I could be whatever I wanted to be if I worked hard. I never doubted that. Yet, life soon showed me just how hard women often have to fight to simply be whatever they want or feel led to be.

While we’ve certainly made strides, society still compels women to somehow justify our choices or actions in a way that men don’t have to. You’ve broken a lot of ceilings throughout your career, and I don’t need to tell you how intense, dirty, and thankless the world of politics can be; how washing your hands of the whole thing and hiding in a cave somewhere would be an easy and welcome respite.

But you didn’t hide. You never shied away from adversity. You’re not perfect, but no one is. You were brave enough to keep going, keep fighting, and keep putting yourself out there, because you believed in something bigger and better. And even though it means a lot to us women, you didn’t just do it for us: you did it for everyone.

So, thank you. Thank you for your stamina and grace. Thank you for giving our generation and all future generations an example of what is important and great in this already-great country. And thank you from an 11 year old girl, who 22 years later remains committed to the causes of justice and equality and will continue down this path you and others before you have lit for us.

We are indeed stronger together.

Onward,
Brittany Persinger

Brittany is an international security professional who lives in Arlington, VA. Follow her on Twitter at @BrittForPeace.