Mungo MacCallum- Political Corrections

A law unto himself

George W Bush celebrated the first five years of his War on Terror by confirming what we already knew that the CIA runs a network of secret gaols in various countries where high level suspects are subjected to what he calls harsh interrogation, meaning torture, although he refuses to accept the word.

In itself the announcement was not news: the system of rendition, which involves the rendering (or perhaps just rending) of prisoners beyond the reach of United States law has been common knowledge for many years; the Australian Mamdouh Habib was one of the early victims, despite denials by both Washington and Canberra. But it is interesting and somewhat chilling that Bush now finds it politically advantageous to admit to it, even to boast about it.

Rendition may or may not be illegal under American law; the Supreme Court has never been asked to rule on it. It is certainly illegal under international law and flies in the face of all the great American traditions of liberty and justice. In the past presidents have been threatened with impeachment for lesser offences. And Bush already has form: the so-called military commissions he set up to try foreigners (but not Americans) held at Guantanamo Bay have been found to be a breach of both domestic and international law, making Bush at least technically a war criminal.

Yet far from running away from this further barbarity, he positively glories in it, and so far at least has escaped public outrage. Apparently our atrocity threshold has been raised to such a level that we have become morally desensitised: what would once have been utterly unacceptable is now just another day at the office.

Naturally there has been not a squeak out of Canberra from either side and as far as I know none of our fearless journalists has even asked John Howard or Kim Beazley for an opinion; while it may be a waste of time, one could hope that they would at least go through the motions. But Australians too seem to have become resigned to the trashing of normal standards, at least as long as they dont impinge on mortgage rates.

We have watched passively as civil liberties are progressively eroded in the name of national security; we have raised barely a murmur as ASIO is transformed from a domestic intelligence service to a fully fledged secret police force with arbitrary powers of arrest and detention. We have felt few misgivings over the kidnapping, imprisonment and (at the very least) maltreatment of some of our own nationals accused of newly-invented crimes and have expressed outrage when others have been granted due process under Australian law. We have allowed, even encouraged, our political leaders to vilify sections of the Australian community while scaring the rest of us witless with what have more often than not turned out to be fairy stories.

We live in a world which, we are told, is a more dangerous place, a place where terrorists lurk down every alley, where we are governed by daily reports of unspecific threat levels, where we are supposed to be actually at war; yet for the vast majority the only real sign of it is irritating queues at airports where otherwise unemployable gauleiters confiscate nail clippers and knitting needles (but not steel pens).

On this level it can appear less tragedy than farce, with Bush as the chief clown but a clown who gives himself licence to torture and kill. Perhaps the world has changed indeed.

Some things, however, never change.

Last week our political masters in Canberra restored some of the perks they lost in 2004 when Mark Latham threatened to make an election issue of the MPs absurdly lavish superannuation scheme. The argument, as always, was that our elected representatives are overworked and underpaid, and if we dont offer higher wages the political gene pool, as our Prime Minister puts it in an unaccustomed metaphor, will dry up.

There are two quick replies to this argument: the first being that the kind of people who go into politics because of the money arent going to add much vigour to the gene pool anyway, and the second being that the gene poll has already dried up, for reasons that have nothing to do with money. Good potential candidates are staying away in droves not because they are greedy but because the whole preselection process has become so sordid and corrupt that no-one but a slightly unbalanced careerist would want to take it on Howard himself, of course, is a perfect example.

Thus we end up with a place overwhelmingly populated by second rate apparatchiks, most of whom would be paid considerably less if they were compelled to find work in the real world assuming that they stayed inside the law. The base pay rate for federal MPs is more than adequate by community standards; when the perks are factored in it becomes generous.

Perhaps Howard should put parliament onto the same deal he expects the rest of the workforce to accept: AWAs with minimum guaranteed terms and conditions and insist that they bargain with their employers (their constituents) for the rest. We would then hear less about paying peanuts and getting monkeys. And if not, then a few of the great apes on the backbenches or the front benches, for that matter would hardly lower the tone of the place. They couldnt contribute any less than some of the political speed bumps currently gathering moss at our expense.

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