Monday, April 30

Don't cry for Hicks, but cry for our nation's failure to demand a timely trial

If David Hicks reached his hand out to me, I would spit on it.

So I've been bemused by the legion of supporters who've rallied around him. They even call him “David”, not “Hicks”. Hicks is a contemptible turd. Just a misguided adventurer? He was accepting training in how to kill people. Some adventure.

But he was also a silly little person of little consequence. Even his US prosecutors thought so.

I hadn't planned to write about the Hicks affair. Anything I said was not going to be about Hicks, but about the role of Prime Minister John Howard. I've said before, and I wasn't anxious to return to the topic, Howard's actions – or lack of action – proved latter-day conservatives have contempt for the rule of law and the conventions of civilised society.

But now we have further insights into the issue, as we read newspaper excerpts from Detainee 002: The Case of David Hicks, which appears to be a well researched book by ABC journalist Leigh Sales. Melbourne University Press launched the book on Monday (April 30).

Sales makes public the previously private views of Hicks's US military prosecutors, revealing they described Hicks as a man of "no personal courage or intellect" who submitted when he was questioned.

To quote the ABC Online report: "I think he read Soldier of Fortune magazine too many times," said John Altenburg, the top US official in the Office of Military Commissions from 2004 to last year.

"His case was a very ordinary case; there was nothing special about it in that clearly he was but a foot soldier, not a leader or a planner . . . for people wanting to see the worst of the worst, this was not going to be it."

Sales writes that the prosecutors said the convicted Australian's crimes were relatively minor compared to those of his fellow inmates, damaging the Federal Government's description of Hicks as a dangerous terrorist.

Hicks was detained for five years at the American military base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba before pleading guilty to providing material support for terrorism.

The Australian today (Monday, April 30) runs a further instalment under the heading, "Keeping Truth At Bay". The first instalment, "Inside the Hicks Deal," ran in The Weekend Australian (April 28-29).

“The Australian Government was clueless about the crisis in the Office of Military Commissions. The Pentagon kept assuring it that everything was going well. But the Australians were uneasy,” The Australian's excerpt begins.

“They were not happy with the lack of progress. Prime Minister John Howard was agitated and constantly asked for answers about when the case would be resolved. He was now well and truly out on a limb.

“British Prime Minister Tony Blair had refused to allow his nationals to go through the system, and in March 2004 the first five Britons were sent home.”

Australia conveyed its attitude to the US: “We did what you said; we went along with the process, and now the Brits have done this and so, in a sense, we have been penalised".

"The Australians were very concerned that the Brits had pulled out," said a Bush administration source. "We were worried it was all going to unravel. We were grateful when they held firm."

When the charges against Hicks were finally laid, instead of being relieved, the Australian embassy in Washington and the Attorney-General's department were more anxious than ever. The delay had been inexplicable.

From my reading of The Australian's excerpts, it's clear that although Tony Blair had the guts to demand the US hand over the British nationals imprisoned in the Guantanamo Bay hellhole, Howard was worried that if he did the same, Hicks would walk free because he'd not broken any Australian laws.

Instead, the Deputy Sheriff believed his personal friendship with President Bush would ensure a speedy US trial for Hicks.

But Howard was cosying up to the wrong person. The Pentagon had no intention of giving Hicks or any other detainees a speedy trial.

This is my conjecture, but it wasn't until this year, when the Pentagon realised its inaction could result in its steadfast Aussie ally being voted out of office, that Hicks got his trial opportunity, and the plea bargain which is about to end his ordeal.

And another thing. The Australian (Wed, May 2) quotes Philip Ruddock that he's prepared to pass legislation, retropective if necessary, to strip David Hicks's father, Terry Hicks, of any profits should he write a book about his son. Terry Hicks has not been convicted of any offence, and it's hard to see how proceeds of crime laws could be applied to him. Ruddock is, of course, Howard's Attorney-General. Which sort of proves my point about the Howard mob's contempt for the rule of law. Read the report.

Wednesday, April 25

Reflections on our Anzac Day

Another Anzac Day, another day of mixed emotions.

As always, today was a day of mateship and pride for ex-servicemen and women. A few decades ago, newspapers carried long lists of reunions, column after column naming the pubs and clubs where old diggers could meet up with comrades after the march. Today there are fewer reunions and fewer diggers to attend them. Some of Sydney's pubs now turn them away.

Despite the diminishing number of old diggers, Australians young and old appear to be observing Anzac Day more strongly than ever. Some people see too much jingoistic nationalism, but support for the day is widespread. It wasn't always so.

Acccording to historian John Hirst, for the years up to World War II, the RSL battled to gain Catholic Church support for Anzac Day ceremonies.

Catholic leaders saw the quasi-religious Anzac services as an heretical rite, and instructed their members that even if they marched, they must not attend the services.

And then there was The One Day of the Year, the play written in 1958 by Alan Seymour, and banned from its planned first performance at the 1960 Adelaide Festival, although a fringe group then presented the play.

Seymour developed his ideas from an article in the Sydney University student paper Honi Soit claiming Anzac Day was a mawkish celebration of confused ideals, marred by drunkenness.

The play's central character, Alf, is a lift-driver who knows he's a failure in life – except on that one day of the year when he joins his old comrades and gets drunk. Alf and his mates disgust Alf's university student son Hughie, who sets out with his hoity-toity girlfriend Jan to prepare a photo-essay documenting their excesses.

When it was written, the play did reflect the concerns of many Australians. How could a day dedicated to solemn remembrance of sacrifice and high ideals degenerate into such alcoholic excess?

On top of that there was a generational gap – arrogant youngsters in contempt of old codgers still wallowing in the glow of wartime friendship, when the world was moving on.

Alcoholic excess remained a serious problem on Anzac Day – but it's not the old diggers, it's been the drunken teenagers staggering around the two-up at the back of pubs. So much so, that most pubs and clubs now say two-up isn't worth the hassle.

This year heavy rain forced organisers to call off the Dawn Service at Woy Woy, usually a moving ceremony in a beautiful waterfront setting, with a big crowd in the memorial park and along the road.

But as Merry and I lay in bed listening to the rain drumming down, the ABC was broadcasting cricket and we switched to local community radio Five-0-Plus (for over-50s, geddit?). Five-0 carried on with its on-location broadcast at the waterfront, a very creditable coverage of an event that wasn't taking place.

Five-0 won me with its marvellous selection of World War II songs and music – Vera Lynn, Tommy Trinder, Glenn Miller and his big band, and all the rest of them. It went on for hours, and I enjoyed all of it. It wasn't all sentimental stuff from the 1940s – I Was Only Nineteen and Donovan's The Universal Soldier also got an airing.

Lunchtime, we headed up to Mangrove Mountain to the Mangrove Country Club. This is not as grand as it sounds. You're more likely to meet a truckdriver than a tycoon, so it's my sort of place. Our oldest son, Andrew, is the club's patron. Don't ask. I don't know how the young fella got to be patron, except that everyone loves him.

[If you're heading from Sydney to the Hunter vineyards via Wollombi, it's the club on the left with a giant wine bottle out the front.]

A good Chinese meal in the style we learned to love in the 'sixties, and so generous we'll get another meal out of what we brought home.

Then the two-up. Young men and women, and some not so young, join in the raucous fun. Most people are drinking beer, but no-one's drunk and no-one's behaving badly. Little children run around. You get to chat to people as you ask whether they'll cover you on heads.

I look around, and I know it's great to be an Australian and to be in Australia. And I feel a surge of gratitude to those who fought to protect it.

Monday, April 9

The club has just closed

Image shows a newspaper clipping about the bashingThere's a woman screaming, over and over: “Stop it, stop it.” Noise, commotion, and it's just outside our front fence. The club must have shut.

Groups of young, noisy and quarrelsome drunks are not uncommon in our street. Usually it's about 3am, the club's just shut, and they're making their way home. This time it's about 1.30am on Easter Monday. It's so common, you wouldn't normally call triple-0.

But the woman's screams continue. Is she being raped? I get up, and peer out the windows. A taxi has pulled up and switched on its hazard lights. In its headlights, some young fellows are wandering around, dazed or drunk.

Then the police cars arrive. Under the flashing blue and red lights, two police give first aid to someone unconscious on the roadway. I can hear moaning, but it's not from there. Fifty metres up the road is another police car, lights flashing, and beside it police are giving first aid to another person lying on the road, blood seeping from his body. He's the one giving a long, soft, intermittent moan.

After the ambulances depart, I talk to a policeman. He tells me the first victim is in a bad way. On the road, where they'd treated him, is a broken fence paling. I look at our front gate.

The thugs have torn two palings from it. One paling per thug, while the others used their boots.

The officer tells me the club has just closed.

As the caricature at the top of this page suggests, I've had my problems with alcohol. But these days, all bar staff must hold an RSA – that's responsible service of alcohol – ticket, mustn't they?

Here's what the NSW Office of Liquor, Gambling and Racing says about RSA:

As part of responsible service of alcohol, venues must prevent drunkenness,minors accessing liquor, and understand that irresponsible liquor practices lead to problems both on and off the premises.

Responsible service of alcohol training is now mandatory for people working in the NSW liquor industry, including licensees, club secretaries, permanent and casual serving staff, and security staff.

Note added April 12: After reading this post, one of my sons with managerial experience in the hospitality industry rang to say bar staff cannot always be blamed. Some people can behave responsibly in a bar, because they know service will be cut off if they don't, yet still prove to be violent and aggressive out on the street. Despite their RSA training, it's often hard for staff to decide whether to stop service. Drunkenness is not always obvious.

Also, I've learned that one victim was discharged from hospital the next morning. The other remained, and is likely to have permanent injuries from a ruthless kicking.

Detectives have yet to lay charges. Part of their problem may be that the first police to arrive had to give first aid to the victims rather than round up those thugs who had staggered off into nearby streets.

Newspaper clippin tells of another bashing nearby at Umina less than a week later

Note added April 16: Gosford detectives are still investigating the bashings outside my front fence. Meanwhile, the violence goes on. Less than a week later, a man is critically injured in the next suburb, apparently at a well-known gathering spot for hoons near the Umina .

Thursday, April 5

That's not my partner, that's my wife

[ I've rewritten parts of this item since its original post – Ian Skinner]

Photo shows Prime Minister John Howard with wife Janette
The caller sounded a bit of a nutter, but he got through to Prime Minister John Howard on the radio in Adelaide. "I am now about to go on a sex strike, and I am calling on Mrs Rann, Mrs Downer and your partner . . ."

He got no further. Howard snapped back to say he didn't have a partner, he had a wife. The caller found himself disconnected.

A trivial thing, recorded by Strewth! columnist Sian Powell in The Australian. But it set me to wondering whether the growing use of "partner" reflected some change in the way people see their relationships.

What's wrong with regarding your wife as your partner? Surely if anyone is entitled to be regarded as Howard's partner, it's Janette. She's said to help him scan the media each morning, and he listens carefully to her advice.

One quick and easy answer may be that Howard snapped an unthinking reply to an irritating pest.

Another, which may be more convincing, is that Howard sniffs some political correctness in calling your wife your partner. Howard is a social conservative, and proud of it. Many Australians share his views on social issues.

For them, the term "partner" may be disturbing because it can include those in relationships once called trial marriage or living in sin, or homosexuals who've decided to share their lives.

Is it also a generational thing, a word (and a concept) seldom used by those over 60, but common among younger people?

I still introduce Merry as my wife, and she presents me as her husband. Yet I can say that for at least four decades – of our 46 years married – I have thought of her as my partner (and she calls me her best friend).

Does it really matter? What's the difference between wife and partner? My answer is tentative. It works for us, but perhaps not for everyone.

To me, "partner" supports a mindset which puts a greater emphasis on equality in the relationship. Also, "wife" and "husband" seem to imply defined roles, perhaps the wife as homemaker and the husband as breadwinner, rather than the flexibility which enhances the lives of so many couples today.

Some Christian churches (and other faiths) even spell out inequality – in marriage, the man must be the head of the household. My memory dims, but I seem to recall that in our wedding vows we changed a word, dropping "obey" and inserting "cherish".

Do more rigidly defined roles in marriage work? To a point, they may. Or perhaps did. Many people have lived long and fulfilling lives in marriages in which they had a clear understanding of one another's roles, and accepted them in faithful companionship.

But come down to the club with me and meet a few widows. They'd love to get around independently, but their husbands always did the driving, and now they think it's too late to learn.

Or look at that elderly couple getting on a crowded train. They're visibly distressed when they have to sit apart. They've always done everything together since they married.

Nor should we ignore that in those earlier times, marriage sometimes became a miserable trap from which escape was difficult.

A woman whose husband could not pass the pub on payday might have to take in the neighbours' washing. If she got a job, and it was not just menial "women's work", she still received only about two-thirds of a man's pay.

If she had to grab the kids and flee her husband's violence, she had few places to seek refuge.

Some of those people should never have married. But in an age when we gave teenagers little guidance about their developing urges, "heavy petting" – remember the term? – sometimes got out of control. I think many of us attended the shotgun wedding of a cousin or workmate who really wasn't ready to face the responsibilities of marriage.

What makes a good marriage? Perhaps fundamentally, nothing all that different from what made a good marriage 50 years ago. But in today's world, those people who would describe themselves as partners may be better placed to achieve it.

I dislike the idea of a marriage in which each partner is discouraged from doing something not shared with the other.

The most loving and fulfilling marriage is one in which each party helps the other fly as high as possible, and sometimes solo – as when I encouraged Merry to fulfil her dream of seeing the Antarctic from the air. As when Merry supports my blogging, despite the unmown lawn.

Oldies may be disconcerted as their offspring move through a number of live-in relationships before finding one to which they're prepared to commit. But that commitment, when it comes, usually is impressive.

Much more than in the past, the relationship might offer a women career opportunities and personal fulfilment of which their mothers might only have dreamed. (When we married, our employer, West Australian Newspapers, required Merry to quit.)

In such a relationship, the man might find an involvement in family life much more rewarding than that achieved under the old patriarchal model.

If those people want to call themselves partners, I'm in there cheering for them. If they'd rather be wife and husband, I don't mind a bit.

And while we're wandering around looking at labels that couples put on themselves, whatever happened to
de facto?

A year or two ago I clipped out a witty explanation. I can't find it now, but I think it came from Macquarie Dictionary publisher Susan Butler. I think it went like this:

There's this woman, Shazza, outside a Housing Commission unit, a cigarette in her mouth and four kids – all by different fathers – hanging off her hips, and she's answering a guy with a briefcase.

"You lookin' for Kevin? That'd be me de facto
. He's in jail."

Yep, de facto just isn't trendy any more.