Here and there – Some terrorists from God: I

[A note comparing the Gunpowder Plot to the 2001 attacks on the US appears in four parts.]

1  The scene

They are all male.  They may not be young, but they are of a fighting age.  They are certainly of an age to plot.  Their community is proud of them.  They are deeply religious, too deeply.  They are in truth fanatics – religious fanatics.  The old word was ‘zealots.’  Their religious zeal is their tragic flaw.  They are so zealous that they are ready to kill and die for the cause of their faith.  The mainstream members and clerics of their faith say that their zeal and readiness to kill are contrary to the express tenets of their faith, but the zealots have more faith in their own zeal than in the teaching and discipline of their elders.  Their faith has a high place for martyrs and if they die in defence of their faith, they will do so in the firm belief that paradise awaits them.  Their clerics are not involved, at least directly, with their plans and plots, but they are there to give general guidance to the zealots, such that some others believe that the clerics are behind all actions undertaken in the name of their faith.

The zealots want to attack a ruling power that they believe is insulting to their religion, and cruel to those who practise it.  At least some of their clerics condemn the regime.  In truth, the zealots wish to bring down the whole order.  For that purpose they are ready to kill or wound men, women, and children who are on any view innocent – ‘innocent’ at least in the sense that they have done nothing to deserve to die.  The zealots do not acknowledge that acting out of hate rarely ends well.  They are tunnel visioned.

To start their campaign they want to strike terror into the regime by a strike that is so daring and so vengeful that it will give the zealots a complete propaganda victory and provoke division and despair in their enemy.  They are ultimately driven back to the maxim that was the first refuge of the fascist and of lawless, godless and cruel dictators like Stalin and Hitler – the ends justify the means.  In short, they are terrorists – exemplary terrorists – the worst and most frightening kinds of terrorists.  They commit their acts of terror in the name of and on behalf of God.  Their claim is nothing less than that they act in the service of God.

Are we speaking of Muslims who attacked the twin towers in New York in 2001?  Yes.  Are we speaking also of the Catholics who attempted to blow up the English House of Parliament in 1605?  Yes.  And the comparison is instructive.

2  The background

The movement known to history as the Reformation involved a schism in the religion called Christianity.  The Catholic Church was no longer the one church.  Kant would later say that wars between different versions of the one faith were far worse than wars between those of different faiths.  Heresy is lethal.  The Reformation caused untold evil and misery for centuries – something that tends to be forgotten by those who want to teach or preach about the place of the Reformation in the ‘values’ of western civilisation.

The split in Germany was mainly about religion.  It led to the Thirty Years War that laid waste to so much of Europe in the first half of the seventeenth century.  The split in England was mainly about politics.  It led to vicious persecution and recrimination on both sides.  It also led to a foreign invasion, the Spanish Armada.  England’s defeat of Spain left the Protestants in control, and it left the Catholics subject to persecution and suspicion.

On the death of Henry VIII, Queen Mary had taken the Church of England back to Rome and she had burnt Protestants as heretics.  On her death, Queen Elizabeth took the Church back to the Protestants and executed Catholics.  Her schismatic death toll was far smaller than that of her half-sister (a point made in the trial we are coming to).

But the loathing that many English felt for Rome led to a split among Protestants.  The people we know as Puritans wanted to put the Church of England further away from Rome.  The purity of their consciences, and their God-driven sanctimony, would help to lead England into the agony of its Civil War.  Before the English tired of the lot of them, the Puritans would reach their frightful apotheosis in the bloodbath conducted by their champion in Ireland – Oliver Cromwell.

The Society of Jesus was formed by a former captain in the Spanish army.  It was to be part of the Church militant.  The level of its ambition is evident from its calling itself after Jesus, something that gave offence to many.  Membership was open to those wishing to serve as soldiers of God and for the defence and propagation of the faith.  The Society came to the fore in opposing the Protestants, and in the movement known as the Counter Reformation.  It started in Spain, the nation that invaded England in order to bring it back to the Catholic faith.  Protestants would therefore not trust the Jesuits, as they were called, and Jesuits had been banned from England and they would come to be expelled from France and other countries.  The Jesuits enjoyed an aura of secrecy that the Masons would copy.  They also exuded intellectual self-satisfaction.

An idle if mordant observer in London who had a sane view of the place of God may have thought at this time that the Puritans and the Jesuits deserved each other.  On any view, they were supremely well equipped to get up each other’s noses – and so to wreak havoc on the rest of us.  (And the worldly triumph of the Puritans in America would be testimony to the proposition that men who are assured that they are to inherit heaven usually find ways of presently taking possession of the earth.)

The cornerstone of the English reformation was the Act of Supremacy of 1559.  In 1570, the pope published a document (a bull) in which he excommunicated Queen Elizabeth and absolved her subjects from paying allegiance to her.  The bull declared ‘Elizabeth to be deprived of her pretended title to the aforesaid crown’.  English sovereignty is in the news now, but it is hard to imagine a more open violation of it than this act of the Holy See – short of invasion.

The King of Spain and the Holy Roman Emperor disagreed with the pope.  They believed that the English would react against Catholics in general and Jesuits in particular.  They were dead right.  But a dissident English cardinal, the founder of the Douai seminary in France, wrote of the ‘filthy lust’ of ‘an incestuous bastard, begotten and borne of an infamous courtesan.’  In Douai, the missionaries were imbued with a sense of martyrdom – it was glorious to die trying to wrest England from the grip of heresy.  The English government became alarmed at the numbers fleeing overseas and legislated against it.  Douai would have been a much softer spot for what we now call radicalisation than those of the caliphate.  The Oxford History of England says:

The via dolorosa that led from Douai to Tyburn [the Golgotha of London] could not have been trod by men who were not profoundly imbued with the spiritual character of their worth….under the guise of saving souls, the priests were really acting as executors of the bull.

In 1580, the papal secretary told English Jesuits that ‘whosoever sends her [Elizabeth] out of the world with the pious intention of doing God service, not only does not sin but gains merit.’  This was not a time for calmness.  Their pope had impaled the Catholics of England on a hopeless conflict of interest and ensured that religion would remain at the forefront of English politics.  English Catholics would pay a dreadful price over many generations.

3 Disaffected Catholics and the plot

The accession of James I on the death of Elizabeth led to hopes that things might get better for Catholics.  They did not.  James I had a personal interest in keeping the peace – his father, the unlamented Lord Darnley, had been taken out by an explosion that made a revolting form of assassination – even by Scottish standards.  For that matter, the mother of James I was a Catholic queen who was beheaded for trying to kill the Protestant queen that James succeeded.  These were fraught times.

A group of Catholic gentry, who were described by one observer as ‘gentlemen hunger-starved for innovation,’ came up with a scheme of ‘devastating insurrection’.  They sought to vindicate their faith and the adherents of their faith.  They planned to overthrow the government by blowing up Parliament with the royal family in it, and leading an uprising from the Midlands after kidnapping a young member of the royal family.  They wanted to start a civil war.  Each conspirator resolved to die rather than be taken; there was more than a whiff of suicide in the venture from the start.  They had collected more than enough gun-powder under the parliament to achieve that result, but the plot was uncovered.

There were thirteen in the plot.  They were led by a man called Catesby, but the best known now is Guy Fawkes.  (His continuance in his appointed role after he was on notice that they had been discovered is very hard to distinguish from suicide; it at least looks like a faith-driven embrace of death.)  Those terrorists, for that is what they plainly were, that were not killed in the pursuit were executed.  For the most part, they did not repent.  Indeed, one observer reported that during the trial, the ‘defendants were taking tobacco as if hanging were no trouble to them.’  Some cracked and asked for mercy at the end.  Not so, Catesby – his sword was engraved with the passion and death of Christ.

Immediately after the plot was revealed, the Catholic clergy denounced it as ‘intolerable, uncharitable, scandalous and desperate.’  It was clearly against Catholic doctrine for ‘private subjects, by private authority, to take arms against their lawful king’, even if he was a tyrant.  Private violent attempts could never be justified.  Catholics must not support them in any way.


Passing bull 170 – Religion and politics


At least two prime ministers have said that they would not allow their religion, or faith, to interfere with their politics.  What nonsense.  Politics is about how we get on with each other.  So are morals.  It would be absurd to say your morals are irrelevant to your politics.

But people who are religious commonly draw heavily on their religion for their moral views.   Indeed, some people of religion have been heard to say that is difficult to envisage a biding moral code without the backing of a religion (putting to one side the difficulty of settling on which one?)  If a person’s religion is vital to their morals, it is equally vital to their politics.  Next time you hear some people say that their faith does not affect their politics, ask them whether that means that they can put to one side the Ten Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount.  It is pure bullshit.

Although, to be frank, some people worry that some politicians ignore the demands of their faith far too much.  Some take that view about the way we deal with refugees.  They say, for example, that everything we do on Nauru violates almost every part of the Sermon on the Mount.  That position is gaining support – from at least 6000 doctors who have their own moral position to advance. For them, there is nothing new about finding a position adopted by both major parties to be immoral.

Now, it is suggested that our current prime minister is considering getting us to join Guatemala in recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in the moral lightweight championship of the world.  He will abandon principle to seek a vote.  How much lower do we have to sink before something snaps?

Then there is the reaction of President Trump to the apparent murder of a journalist by Saudi Arabia.  He says that any sanction will not include limiting the sale arms (that are used for the butchery in Yemen).  He says that such a sanction would cost the U S too much in money and jobs.  The Great Republic, it seems, cannot afford to be decent.  How is Trump’s position different to that of a bank robber who tells the judge that he needed the money to feed and clothe his children?

There may then be something to be said for the proposition that politicians do not give full faith and credit to their religion.  But, then you look at the Kavanagh catastrophe, and you call for the bucket.


Readers must be in turn fascinated, confused and astounded by the increasingly lurid fiasco surrounding the US Supreme Court confirmation hearing of judge Brett Kavanaugh. When I read that this 53-year-old man with a seemingly unblemished character and all the right credentials in jurisprudence had suddenly been accused by a woman of molestation when he was 17 and she 15, and that despite years “recovering” her memory of the incident, she still couldn’t remember any concrete facts about it, and what’s more, no one else could confirm her accusation, I laughed. Not the standard feminist response but this episode had turned into the theatre of the absurd.

Angela Shanahan, The Australian, 29 September.

Well, at least the contributors to that paper never claim that their faith does not affect their politics.  But it is sad when someone claiming adherence to the Beatitudes laughs off attempted rape.  That is worse than bullshit.  It is cruel.

Passing bull 169 – The myth of religious freedom


If I say that I want the freedom to do something, I mean that I want there to be no law against my doing it.  But if I want to be able to do something that is against the law as it is, I am asking for something more.  I want my case to be excluded from the law – like when a charity is exempted from paying tax.  What I am asking for is a privilege – ‘A right advantage or immunity granted to or enjoyed by a person, or class of persons, beyond the common advantages of others.’(Shorter O E D.)  The two notions are very different, and obviously different, but this difference is usually ignored, especially in The Australian, when people talk about some chimera called ‘religious freedom.’

Generally speaking, Australians can follow what religion they like, but not in a way that is against the law.  A cleric gets no immunity from the laws of libel, racial discrimination, or treason just because he is speaking in a pulpit.

There are laws against discriminating against people on the ground of their sexuality.  There is a suggestion that some religious schools should be exempted from complying with this law to the extent that it makes it unlawful for a school to send a child away because of his or her sexuality.  A religious group seeking to acquire such a right is seeking a form of privilege.  But they prefer the word freedom because it is harder to deny a claim to be free as opposed to a claim for a privilege that puts someone above and beyond the law.  This is one time when labels matter.  We are not talking about freedom of religion but privileges of churches.

The law allows certain kinds of clubs exemption from some laws about sexual discrimination.  It is lawful for the Melbourne Club not to allow female members.  Different considerations of policy would arise for the Melbourne Cricket Club or Victorian Racing Club because of their standing in public life.

There are at least two grounds of policy difference when considering exempting a school from obeying the law relating to sexual discrimination.  One is that the Melbourne Club consists of consenting adults.  That is not so with a school.  Schools are there to benefit children who have not reached the age of consent.  The other difference is that one way or another, a private school is likely to receive public money.  In my view those two differences distinguish the case of a school from that of a club, and entail a rejection of the claim for privilege.

At the very least, any government agreeing to grant such a privilege should make it transcendentally clear that any such school will never receive one cent of my taxes.

Finally, may I say that in the present climate of opinion, any religious group seeking to put itself above the law is showing a level of hardihood and obtuseness that verges on the sublime.


Now the enthusiasm gap has disappeared. Republicans are as intense as Democrats. This mutual loathing, by the way, is very bad for America.

Greg Sheridan, The Australian, 11 October 2018

The headline referred to ‘Kavanagh persecution.’  Two things.  It would be as hard to imagine a clearer instance of a spoiled child who is a flower of the Establishment, or of a man more unsuited for the judiciary because of his political views and failure of temperament – leaving Doctor Ford out of the question altogether.  American senators should dress in character and turn up in togas.

Passing bull 168 – Sense about the ABC


The dismissal of the CEO of the ABC raises issues of governance.  Are the directors and journalists at the ABC subject to different obligations to those at Fairfax or News?

The ABC is funded by public money.  So are News (Murdoch) and Fairfax.  There are at least two differences.  First, all citizens contribute in one way or another to the ABC and all have rights to get the services provided by the ABC for free.  They do not have to acquire shares in News or Fairfax or pay for any of their products.  Secondly, the functions of the ABC are set out in an act of parliament.  Those of News and Fairfax are set out in the constituent documents of the relevant corporations and the history of the role of a free press in a democracy like ours.

When considering that role, two questions may arise.  Are the journalists allowed to practise their profession independently?  What professional standards must those journalists apply?  The answers to those questions reflect the integrity of the corporation as a member of the press.  If you look at the two differences between the ABC on one hand and News and Fairfax on the other hand, is there anything there that may dictate different answers to either of those two questions?

Some people refer to the charter of the ABC in its act (section 6).  It contains motherhood statements, but three things can be said.  First, the obligation to ‘contribute to a sense of national identity’ might make people other than me feel queasy.  (Is that not the precise mission of Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, and Pauline Hanson?)  Secondly, the words ‘independent’ and ‘balanced’ appear in the context of broadcasting programs that are specialised or of wide appeal.  Thirdly, the obligation in broadcasting overseas to ‘encourage awareness of Australia and an international understanding of Australian attitudes on world affairs’ is one of straight propaganda.

Another provision (section 8) provides that the board must ‘maintain the independence and integrity’ of the ABC and ‘ensure that the gathering and presentation…of news and information is accurate and impartial according to the recognised standards of objective journalism.’

But the same obligations attach to the directors of News and Fairfax.  In neither provision – section 6 or 8 – do I see any basis for saying that there is any difference between the ABC, News and Fairfax on their need to preserve editorial independence or their standards of journalism – that is, their integrity.  If that is right, much of the commentary on the ABC is based on false premises.

The essential difference is that the ABC is susceptible to political interference in a way that News and Fairfax are not.  As part of the free press, the ABC has to investigate and report on government.  In other words, it has to do things the government will not like.  You have only to look at the role of the press in investigating and reporting on our finance industry to see how fundamental this function of the press is to our democracy.  But for the reporting by the ABC and Fairfax, the Royal Commission, which was opposed to the last by government and News, would never have taken place, and we would be far, far worse off.  The press had to be good because government was so bad.

So, the ABC has to get stuck into government, and government must keep its hands off the ABC.  There must, therefore, be conflict.  In my view, the ABC generally handles that conflict much better than the government.

In The Australian, a News publication, Chris Kenny, a former Liberal Party staffer, said of the fracas about the ABC chairman:

And anyone with knowledge and experience of journalism, politics and public broadcasting should realise how unwise and improper it is to convey even the perception of political interference.

May I make two comments about The Australian?  First, in my view, too many of its journalists accept instructions to attack the ABC.  That conduct is unprofessional and it directly contradicts the need for editorial independence.  Secondly, too many of those journalists are too close to people in government.  The friendship between Messrs Abbott and Sheridan is just one example – and it shows, at both ends.  Journalists generally might follow the example of judges and steer clear of politicians.  A fortiori, they should not be pawns in political coups.  People at News go out of their way to suggest that they do just that.

What is the upshot?  Any suggestion that for either editorial independence or the standards of journalism or integrity generally the ABC is in some way inferior to, say, News, is at best just bloody laughable.


What’s your leadership style?

Collaborative, decisive, authentic and passionate. Leadership requires tremendous amounts of positive energy. Energy to inspire your people to be their best, to drive change in a rapidly evolving world, and to ensure we deliver superior outcomes.

Cindy Hook of Deloitte.  Australian Financial Review 18 September, 2018

Passing Bull 167 –False choices


The other day, I was discussing with a friend the decline in public life here and in the U S and the U K.  The question arose whether people like Donald Trump or Boris Johnson were causes of the malaise or symptoms of it.  I wondered why they could not be considered as both causes and symptoms if we were looking at one version of the chicken and egg conundrum.

A dilemma occurs in an argument when one party is driven to a position of having to choose between two courses that are equally unattractive.  It is like having two pieces attacked by one in chess – being forked – or being snookered: whichever way you try to get out, you are in trouble.

A dilemma is false if it says that there are only two choices when there are more.  What you generally get is that if you do not do A, you will have to go with B, which will be truly awful.  The truth is that there are other possibilities, but you face an attempt to induce you to believe that you have no real choice.  Naturally, it is a weapon of choice among politicians.

As often as not, people say that you have to choose between two factors when you do not.  In his history, From Dawn to Decadence, Jacques Barzun says ‘True opera is a kind of music rather than a kind of play …’  Putting to one side the question of what a false opera might look or sound like, opera is both music and drama.  The joining of the music and drama defines what opera is.  We do not have to make a choice about what we like more or regard as the more important.  This is one occasion when you might truly say that it all depends on how it goes on the night.

This fallacy – that is what it is – might be compared to one that we might call that of ‘unnecessary choice.’  In a promo on CNN, Christiane Amanpour says that she insists on being ‘truthful, not neutral’.  That is plain silly.  Any journalist should aspire to be both.  Our Code of Ethics speaks of ‘scrupulous honesty’ and not allowing ‘personal interests to influence them in their professional duties.’  If the converse of ‘neutral’ is ‘passionate’ ‘committed’ or ‘partisan’, Ms Amanpour is in deep trouble.

These things matter when we get told that you are either for us or against us.  That is bullshit’ of a repellent tribal variety.


There’s an old political slogan you might remember … the public get the politicians they deserve. Through all the political turmoil over the past decade I can’t help but draw your attention to your own culpability. It’s at least partly your fault. And there’s every danger you are about to make the whole situation worse.

That sounds tough. Our political narrative assumes the public is always right. No elected official should blame the public for an adverse election outcome. When Hillary Clinton described the Trump voters as the ‘deplorables’ we all knew she was finished. You can’t say that in public life.

But still, the collective electorate can be wrong. They can make decisions that make governance harder, not easier. Let me give you a couple of examples.

First, let’s take our old friend climate change. The public overwhelmingly want Australia to contribute to lowering greenhouse emissions. At the very least they want us to make a proportional contribution to the global task of CO2 mitigation.

Alexander Downer, Australian Financial Review, 24 September, 2018.

What is terrifying is that the writer believes it.

Passing Bull 166 –Nothing at the top


There is real concern at the revolving door of federal politics.  The people in Canberra are not up to it – morally or intellectually.  But has it occurred to you that there may be nothing there at all?

Do you know that we have a federal Minister for Energy?  The federal Constitution says nothing about energy – but that doesn’t stop the Commonwealth having a ministry.  How does the Minister see his function?  To keep down prices.

There will be no ideology in what I do.  My goal, the goal of my department and the goal of the electricity sector, must be simple and unambiguous – get prices down while keeping the lights on.

Well, the Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia may not have the power to make laws about energy, but as a minister advising Her Majesty the Queen of Australia, the Minister believes that he can do something to keep prices down.  What can he do?  And what can he decently do as a member of a government that likes to call itself conservative, and to believe in the invisible hand of the free market?

If electricity is supplied by corporations, won’t their directors be managing their business to return profits to shareholders (including super funds), and might not this obvious fact of life lead them to increase rather than lower the price of their product?  In truth, asking a minister of this government to do anything sane about the environment or energy is like asking the Grand Chief Wizard of the Lodge to conduct Mass.

The National Party claims to represent farmers.  Desperate drought affected farmers have now joined with a conservation group to put on an ad:

We need to stick to the Paris agreement, we need to stop burning coal and we need to commit to more renewable energy.

Each of those propositions is anathema to those in power federally.

Well, the Commonwealth has power to make laws about corporations.  It has legislated about them – at mind-crippling length.  It has also appointed a body to enforce those laws.  The scandalous ineptitude of that body is just one of the unsettling revelations of the Royal Commission that this government was so keen to avoid.

You get the impression that some members of the government think that the buck stops with the regulator.  That is wrong.  The government cannot shed its responsibility for enforcing its laws by appointing a regulator any more than a board of directors can do so by appointing a CEO.  This government remains responsible for its failure to enforce its own laws.

The Treasurer appears to favour giving the regulator power to order a corporation to pay compensation ‘within a set timeframe, thus avoiding ASIC needing to take legal action.’  On its face, that looks like giving the executive of the government the power to deprive people of their property without intervention by the judiciary – that is to say, without due process.  That will be an interesting exercise – especially for a government claiming the character referred to above.  But whatever else is involved, we will get masses of regulation – and highly remunerative work for lawyers, accountants, and other advisers.

What then is the major aim of the Treasurer?

The big focus for me is going to be on the productivity agenda and…cutting regulation.

If you put all this with the blooper below, it is hard to imagine any body of people more completely losing their way.  Is there anyone home at all?


Brown is a fourth-generation grazier whose family property has been affected by drought.

In the clip, she calls for ‘politicians to stop dancing around the issue and help us to do something about this’.

‘We need to stick to the Paris agreement, we need to stop burning coal and we need to commit to more renewable energy,’ she says.

The campaign comes after the prime minister, Scott Morrison, described the drought as his highest priority but said the conversation about the connection between drought and climate change should be ‘left  to another day.’

The Guardian, 16 September, 2018

This might remind you of the standard response of Donald Trump or the NRL to the latest mass murder in the U S.  ‘This is not the time to talk about the answer to the problem – our rotten gun laws.  In the meantime’ – as David Rowe remarked some time ago in the AFR –‘take a few boxes of thoughts and prayers – on the house.’

Passing Bull 165 – It’s everywhere

Wherever you look, the bullshit in politics is so ripe that comment is unnecessary.  It speaks for itself.


‘I have no truck with bullying or intimidation in whatever form it is,’ Mr Morrison said. ‘‘I am the father of two young daughters and I have no truck with that sort of behaviour.

‘One of the things we are moving quickly to do is restore the strong culture in the Liberal Party and bring the party together and show the stability and unity that is necessary.’

Australian Financial Review 30 August, 2018

A  senior Liberal source familiar with the situation said when the police came investigating, Senator Cash ‘was asked to co-operate and she didn’t’.

She instead referred the police to her public statements on the issue, telling them, ‘I said everything I know at Senate estimates, I have nothing to add,’ the source claimed.

She was subsequently subpoenaed by the AWU as a witness. She instructed her lawyers to fight the subpoena.

Sources close to the senator rejected the assertion she was unco-operative. They say her reference to her public statements was the equivalent of giving a voluntary statement and the police were satisfied because ‘there was no follow-up by the AFP’.

Senator Cash declined to comment on the matter, saying her focus was about moving past the events of last week.

Australian Financial Review 31 August, 2018

Former Liberal Senator Helen Kroger, who chairs the party’s women committee, says, however, that the party does not have a bullying problem, although she acknowledged that it should have more female representation.  ‘I feel deeply sorry for Julia Banks’, Kroger told the ABC.  ‘But politics is a career not for everyone.  That’s the bottom line.

Australian Financial Review, 1-2 September, 2018

Cue West Australian Liberal MP Andrew Hastie, who on Friday turned up at a rally of striking members of the Australian Workers’ Union rally, 31 days into an industrial dispute with aluminium maker Alcoa. Mr Hastie – a so-called ‘‘conservative’’ Liberal MP – told the striking workers from a labour collective once led by Labor leader Bill Shorten that he supported their demands for better redundancy payouts and for minimum staffing levels. The former SAS officer blamed irresponsible climate policy for driving up power prices so much that it was forcing companies to screw down workers’ conditions.

Australian Financial Review 10 September 2018

An outspoken critic of subsidies for renewable forms of energy like wind farms and solar panels, Taylor said: ‘There will be no ideology in what I do.  My goal, the goal of my department and the goal of the electricity sector, must be simple and unambiguous – get prices down while keeping the lights on.’

The Guardian, 10 September, 2018

The premier and several senior colleagues acknowledged that Turnbull’s knifing had deterred some voters in Wagga but the federal senator Jim Molan dismissed those concerns, saying it ‘wasn’t a factor.

‘People were very disappointed that we were spending time taking about ourselves and to ourselves but it’s something that every now and again that you’ve got to go through,’ Molan said. ‘We don’t go through leadership spill for fun, I can tell you that.’

The Guardian, 10 September, 2018


I did say that comment was unnecessary, but the AFR did publish the following letter.

Dear Editor,

The evil of banality

Phillip Coorey had a destabilising effect on my breakfast this morning.  He said (‘Keystone coup’) that Tony Abbott may be the last one left standing in the fallout of the latest disaster in the Liberal Party.  But I was soon returned to that trance-like torpor that Australians fall into when confronted with the sheer banality of their politicians (‘Cash declined to give statement to the police’).  When asked about her role in another self-incurred fiasco, Senator Cash declined to comment.  She said ‘her focus was about moving past the events of last week.’

This is a world record for inanity.

The tragedy is that that is just what most Australians want Tony Abbott and Michaelia Cash to do – move on.  For citations you could have your pick of Dickens ‘It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done,’ or Shakespeare, ‘Nothing in his life became him like the leaving it’.

But, then, did some dolorous soul raise the question of employability?

Yours truly

Geoffrey Gibson

Passing Bull 164 –Pride in race


The word ‘racist’ is loaded and abused.  The term ‘dog whistling’ is headed in the same direction.  I would prefer to avoid using either.  By the term ‘racist’,  I understand a person who believes that he or she is superior to people of a different race and who is content to say so.  The feeling of superiority is not in my view enough.  Many people deep down feel superior, if only because many people feel a difference between them and people of a different race, and very few escape making a judgment in their favour on the result of that difference.  The critical part is the readiness of some people to convey their sense of superiority to others including those whom they regard as inferior.  ‘Dog whistling’ is the name given to those who are ready to express that sense of superiority without getting caught.  The expression of superiority is disguised or ambivalent.  Such an activity is therefore the product of both malice and cowardice.  The superior people are, as the saying goes, eager to wound but afraid to strike.  Keeping any sense of superiority to yourself is by contrast the product of upbringing and manners.

The grosser part of the id of Donald Trump is Stephen Bannon.  Manigault Newman asked Bannon if rumours of his being a racist were true.

He said no.  He explained, ‘The same way you are a proud African-American woman, I am a proud white man.  What’s the difference between my pride and your pride?’

Bannon is proud to be white.  (Let us put to one side the silly ad hominem argument that his protagonist has the same belief and emotion – but for a different colour of skin.)  What is ‘pride’?

  1. A high or overweening opinion of one’s own qualities, attainments, or estate; inordinate self-esteem. 2. The exhibition of this quality in attitude, bearing, conduct; arrogance, haughtiness.

Well, Donald trump is obviously full of it.  But, if we put the Oxford English Dictionary to one side, things don’t get better in the Bible.  Pride goes before the fall and the meek shall inherit the earth.  But it is very hard to think of any meaning of the word ‘pride’ that does not entail that Bannon believes that as a white man, he is superior to people who are not white.  Given the context in which he makes that statement, it is also clear that he is content to say so, and to say as much to people who are not white.  Bannon therefore comes within my criteria for the word ‘racist’.

Bannon may or may not agree.  He would certainly deny ‘dog-whistling’.  He probably thinks his sophistry is clever.  It may be clever enough for Trump and those who attend his rallies, but it lacks all conviction for people who can see.  And by projecting his own arrogance or haughtiness on to others, he imagines a world where all people feel superior to people of a different race.  The resulting hatred and conflict might give a fair preview of hell.

You may or may not agree with that, but one thing is clear.  Mr Bannon believes that he as a white man is different to people who are black – if there were no difference –if black people were relevantly the same as white people – there would be nothing for either side to be proud of.  That then leads to at least three questions.  What exactly is the relevant difference between a white person and a black person?  What is it about that difference that leads Mr Bannon to be happy or proud that he is white and not black?  And why does Mr Bannon feel the need to tell people that he is proud of being white?

Say that I have hazel eyes, short hair, and flat stomach, but you have blue eyes, long hair and a pot.  So what?  What is the point of any difference?  Well, then, let’s get to the real point – why does it matter if my racial ancestry is different to yours?

And what is there about that difference that makes you proud to have your ancestry rather than mine – while you are presumably left to wonder if I could give a hoot?

Why, then, do you feel the need to raise any issue flowing from any difference?  If a blackfella walked into a pub at Halls Creek, or if a white governor walked into his governor’s mansion in Alabama, and said that he was proud that he was black or white, how peaceful do you think that the reaction might be?  If you remain so far unruffled, how would you be if you were Jewish and your best friend announced that he or she was proud to be Aryan?

Finally, what is there for you to be proud of about the fact that you are white when, to quote Beaumarchais, all that you have relevantly done is to have taken the trouble to be born?  Saying that you are proud to be white makes as much sense as saying that you are proud that you won Tatt’s.  It’s just the luck of the bloody draw, Mate.

Perhaps, then, Mr Bannon has done us a service by being so tart.  His is the dark arena of people like Andrew Bolt and Alan Jones.  They like the dagger, but they also like to muffle it with a cloak; and, like Mr Bannon, they are frankly vicious.


Writing on her social media presence earlier this summer, [Lara Trump] noted that her Instagram feed is ‘an achievement in blandness’ highlighting her ‘commitment to her kid, her dogs and her father-in-law without ever betraying a hint of personality’.

‘Woman to woman, I shared a connection with Omarosa as a friend and a campaign sister, and I am absolutely shocked and saddened by her betrayal and violation on a deeply personal level.’

The Guardian, 18 August 2018.

Once you have adapted to the notion that a member of the Trump family might be bland, you might ask how a connection woman to woman – either as a friend or as a campaign sister – might differ from a connection man to man or man to woman.

Passing Bull 163 –The Conservative delusion


We unfortunate Australians have just lived through another ugly farce orchestrated by people who like to call themselves ‘conservatives.’  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Alternatively, if this is what conservatives can do to us, the less we see of them, the better.  They are venomous and destructive.  And the masters of denial have no program for the future.  Building up is far harder than tearing down.

A while ago, I said:

The word ‘conservative’ has had its political ups and downs, but of late it has been debauched if not hijacked.  Conservatism found its most classical expression in Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France.  The English preferred evolution to revolution.  They relished their history and traditions; they reveled in their own mystique.  They suspected change.  Burke said that their ‘opposed and conflicting interests…interpose a salutary check to all precipitate resolutions; they render deliberation a matter not of choice, but of necessity; they make all change a subject of compromise, which naturally begets moderation; they produce temperaments, preventing the sore evil of harsh, crude, unqualified reformations.’….

An American legal scholar W D Guthrie expressed Burk’s thought on the 700th anniversary of Magna Carta….Guthrie later spoke of ‘the rare and difficult sentiment’ of ‘constitutional morality.’  Its essence is ‘self -imposed restraint’.  Its antithesis is ‘the most fallacious and dangerous doctrine that has ever appeared among men, that the people are infallible and can do no wrong.’  A ‘populist’ and a ‘conservative’ are two clean different things.

Speaking of eighteenth century England, Sir Lewis Namier said:

Restraint, coupled with the tolerance which it implies and with plain human kindness, is much more valuable in politics than ideas which are ahead of their time; but restraint was a quality in which the eighteenth-century Englishman was as deficient as most other nations are even now.

The fundamental terms are as boring as they are inevitable – compromise, moderation, restraint, and tolerance.  Yet none of those terms could in any way be applied to those in the Murdoch press and Sky News who wanted Turnbull out and Dutton in.  On the contrary, these people favour the direct opposite – the view that ‘the people are infallible and can do no wrong.’  I would happily eschew both labels ‘conservative’ and ‘populist,’ but if either has any use, it is to allow us to conclude that a ‘conservative’ cannot by definition be a ‘populist’.  (And anyone who can look at Peter Dutton and think of ‘plain human kindness’ is in serious need of medical attention.)

When Tony Abbott lost office as P M, it was by a vote of the party.  He and his followers did not like that truth.  They said he was the victim of a coup.  A coup involves the use of force to change leaders.  (A revolution involves the use of force to change the whole regime.)  Turnbull has now lost office by the same process.  Whether this could be described as a coup or not, the behaviour of Abbott and his media supporters was a direct repudiation of moderation or restraint.

To make it worse, the ignition point came after the party as a whole approved a policy that offended the plotters; just as it happened in England after the governing party there adopted the ‘Checkers policy’.  And in a world crying out for political leadership, the dissidents in each case complained that their Prime Minister had been able to get majority approval for a policy.

Last week’s farce was as predictable as Blue Hills.  But two strands seem clear.  One is that neither party stands for anything.  Labour v Capital went out years ago.  So did Left v Right.  In the last ten years, big business has become as unpopular as trade unions – and churches, government agencies, and sports administrators.  On the two moral issues – refugees and foreign wars – the two big parties both gave up and are now rock solid in a way that the community is not.  Those parties therefore seem driven to argue about things that should not rationally be arguable.  We then get a real problem like climate change being reduced to a shopping item of electricity prices.  The inanity is brazen.  What you then end up with is a crippling triumph of ideology over evidence.  Can you imagine a more complete rejection of the ‘conservative’ mind?

The second strand is that this is yet another big win for mediocrity.  We had a Prime Minister with intelligence and flair.  We now have a talking head that has got God.  That is such a sad Australian story.

We are left to console ourselves at the chagrin of the lynch mob.  Andrew Bolt was beside himself with rage.  You could taste his loathing of Turnbull through the television screen.  God only knows who shall feel the gall of his frustrated envy next.  He was like a taipan uncurled.  Credlin is frankly vicious.  But unlike Bolt, there is a chance that she believes some of her own product.  If Abbott were a dog, they would put him down.

Finally, most of these fake conservatives are overt or covert admirers of the most unconservative man ever born, the current President of the United States.  This may be just another instance of some mountebanks saying whatever comes into their heads provided it sells.  To that extent I agree with those who see our most recent debacle as just another instance of the world-wide descent of democracy into the gutter.

This is the second time that Malcolm Turnbull has been put down by jealous boobies for being both successful and rational.  On each occasion his successor was a surprise.  We shall have to see if this surprise is as nasty as the first.  Well, whatever else, it will at best be mind-numbingly ordinary.  The people of Australia are fairly wondering what we have done to deserve this.

I now see that some years ago, I wrote:

Australia is struggling under too much government and too much law, and a disinterest and distrust of politics that was once a charm, but which now sustains groups of inept and mediocre politicians who have never held down a real job and who are determined to put their own interests above those of the people.  The nation has next to nothing to look back on politically except a kind of enduring noiseless torpor…. By and large, the politicians and the press have succeeded in either anaesthetizing or repelling the people.  Each of the two main parties is prepared to execute a leader who is insufficiently bland and to replace them with an antiseptic model that the people trust even less: and then the people in disgust or despair vote for authentic layabouts, charlatans, urgers, bludgers and downright thieves….

The downside for Australia is the frightening mediocrity of its politics.  The land dubbed as ‘the quarry with a view’ is now revolted by its politicians.  How is it that the nation appears to be so economically successful? 

Nearly fifty years ago, a writer called Donald Horne published a book called The Lucky Country.  The book immediately resonated with Australians and became a best seller, and is now something of a classic.  Its essential conclusion looks more true now than in 1964:

‘Australia is a lucky country run by second-rate people who share its luck….Many of the nation’s affairs are conducted by racketeers of the mediocre who have risen to authority in a non-competitive community where they are protected in their adaptations of other people’s ideas….Much of its public life is stunningly bad, but its ordinary people are fulfilling their aspirations’……

At the end of his book The Rise and Fall of Australia, Nick Bryant referred to remarks made by Bertrand Russell to Australians in 1950 as he was leaving their shores after the intellectuals’ version of a royal tour: ‘Perhaps you are all too comfortable to take so much trouble.  Perhaps you will be content with a moderate and humdrum success, but I hope not.  I hope that….you will be content to take the risks involved in aiming at great success rather than acquiesce in the comfortable certainty of a moderate competence.’


For reasons that will be apparent, I have yet again cancelled a subscription to The Australian.  They make it as hard as they can.  After two emails and a delay, I got back a machined response.  It contained the eternal lie: ‘We appreciate your feedback.’  It was marked ‘No-Reply.’

Passing Bull 161 – Omnipotence; or God Revisited


Allow me some Latin.  Rex fons iustitiae est.  The King is the fountain of justice.  That was the medieval view – the court of the King had many uses and phases, as did the High Court of Parliament.  Of the course the court of the king was the ultimate source of both justice and law.  A ‘doom’ might be like a ‘decree’ – a decision in a particular case or a ruling for future cases.

Nemo iudex debet in propria causa sua.  You cannot judge yourself: literally, no one should be a judge in his own cause.

Audi alteram partem.  ‘Hear the other side’ – a judge must listen to both sides dispassionately.

These principles are fundamental.  They underlie our notion of due process, and the principles that are called administrative law.

Only someone morally unhinged could query either principle.

Donald Trump is such a person.  Speaking of what is called the Russian investigation, Trump said:

I’ve decided to stay out….I don’t have to stay out, as you know.  I can go in and I could…do whatever.  I could run it if I want.

He could inquire into himself – and decide the inquiry.

Neither Nero nor Nebuchadnezzar could have made such a claim.  Even God might draw the line.

It is a sad reflection of the inability of a slow spoiled child to accept that other people also live on this planet earth.  When this nightmare ends, some people will have a lot of work to do explaining their silence when it mattered.


And although an integrity officer is also no panacea, it can act as an antidote.  But as mentioned, for this to happen, the role must be properly instituted.

Among other things, this requires that the person occupying the role is truly independent and doesn’t feel a need to curry favour with people within the organisation.  It requires that the integrity officer is provided with unfettered access to the organisation so that they can identify where issues exist and whether people are reluctant to shine a light on them.  And it requires that they are provided with the requisite platform and can speak truth to power.

Australian Financial Review 20 August 2018

Where is bloody George Orwell when we need him?