McBride’s jail sentence

“I've never been so proud to be an Australian as today. I may have broken the law, but I did not break my oath to the people of Australia and the soldiers who keep us safe” said David McBride on Wednesday as he walked to the ACT Supreme Court to be sentenced.

McBride’s jail sentence is well covered in the media. Michael West Media outlines the judgement in a short article: War crimes whistleblower sentenced to nearly six years sentence.

This case is not just about one person. Peter Greste, who has experienced the way authoritarian governments treat journalists, writes in The Conversation David McBride goes to prison – and Australian democracy takes a hit.

The Human Rights Law Centre has assembled comments from lawyers, politicians, and journalists all expressing their dismay to find that such a judgement could be made in a democracy: Dark day for democracy as military whistleblower David McBride imprisoned.

It appears, from the interpretation made by the Human Rights Law Centre, that any public servant, politician or military officer, concerned to hide their doings from the public, only has to stamp “secret” on a document to be guaranteed protection of the law. That protection endures long after any possible justification for the classification is passed. Also, classification can be used as a means to restrict whistleblowers’ ability to call witnesses who can testify in their defence.

This decision has been reported around the world’s democracies. Deutsche Welle in its English language edition carries the headline: David McBride: Australian lawyer jailed over Afghan war docs. Germans know better than anyone else about the responsibilities of soldiers. The Nürnberg War Crimes Trials established the principle that even the most lowly-ranked officer had to bear responsibility for his or her own actions: the authority of senior military officers is not unbounded.

There is something wrong not only with our lack of whistleblower protection, but also with the way we have come to see loyalty to our country. Politicians and ex-politicians, elected by Australian citizens, incur no penalty or condemnation for openly expressing loyalty to a foreign monarch. Yet a lawyer trying to ensure that Australian soldiers do not bring shame on our country is sentenced to jail.

The Coalition’s nuclear power policy explained

It’s safe to assert that promoting the construction of nuclear power plants is not an obvious vote winner, particularly in a country that has never had a commercial nuclear reactor and has laws banning civilian nuclear power generation. It’s even more politically risky when the positioning of reactors is pretty well determined by the layout of the grid and the coal-fired stations they would replace.

So why is the Coalition going down the nuclear power path? Why did Dutton make nuclear energy a major aspect of his budget reply speech?

Writing in The May edition of The Monthly Marian Wilkinson takes us into the reasoning behind the Coalition’s policy: Dutton’s nuclear power plants. The Monthly has a paywall, but it allows limited access to non-subscribers. Or you can hear her summarize her explanation on Schwartz Media’s 7am podcast: The lobbyists behind Peter Dutton’s nuclear promise.

There is no defensible economic explanation for the Coalition’s policy. In these roundups there have been links to sites with independent economic analysis of nuclear power as a path to our net zero obligations. Economists point out that conventional large reactors are just too expensive, and that a trial of small modular reactors – the type the Coalition is advocating – has failed. They’re hardly past proof-of-concept, and their costs per kWh would almost certainly be higher than the cost of large reactor, because of scale considerations.

The unreality of the Coalition’s proposals is their claim that nuclear reactors could be used for firming the electricity supply, to complement renewable sources. But nuclear power plants are 24/7 base-load generators. Firming – when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow – is best done by sources that can respond quickly – batteries, stored hydro systems, and gas for the time being.

There is no economic or engineering explanation of the Coalition’s policy, but there is a political explanation. Wilkinson explains that it allows the Coalition to assert that it has a policy to achieve net zero emissions, which should appeal to the few remaining moderates in its ranks, while offering others, including National Party MPs, a policy that differentiates the Coalition from Labor, such is their visceral hatred of renewable energy.

Because the plants would be located at or near to existing coal-fired stations, they would not need new transmission lines. In that way nuclear policy dovetails with their orchestrated campaign about farmers whose delicate sensitivities would be offended by transmission towers bocking their vistas of cleared land, erosion gullies and farm junkyards.

Nuclear’s main appeal to the Coalition is that plants would take many years to establish. There would be little alternative to re-commissioning old coal-fired stations, or even building new ones, to fill the electricity supply gap.

More importantly to the lobby pushing the opposition to nuclear power (Wilkinson provides a thorough who’s who), nuclear power allows big corporations to remain the main players in electricity supply. Renewable energy is developing on a distributed basis – with rooftop solar at one end of the spectrum, and with many medium-sized enterprises feeding into the grid. Nuclear power is strictly for the big end of town.

The corrosion of Australia’s national debate

Kerrie O’Brien, writing in The Age, draws attention to Laura Tingle’s John Button Oration, held last weekend as part of Melbourne’s Writers’ Festival.

From that media report it is clear that Tingle is referring to the way “Australian politics and media took a turn for the worse under John Howard’s primeministership”, and have not recovered. Debate on policy gave way to attacks on groups of people and racist dog whistles.

Tingle says that there is now little media deliberation on public policy. “There’s no room for nuance”, she says. Trivial aspects of events command the attention of the media, pushing substantial policy issues to the background, as we witnessed with the media’s obsession with the Prime Minister’s minor disagreement with an organizer of the rally for women’s safety.

Contributing to this development she notes the influence not only of John Howard but also the economic pressure on the media. “Opinion was cheaper than specialist reporting and being controversial was something that they hoped would sell newspapers”.

She is hopeful that we will see a return to “more measured discourse”. She notes the way the public have been repulsed by the media’s behaviour around the Bondi attacks, and sees early signs that people are turning off social media.

To its credit The Age has lowered its paywall to make this story accessible. The Melbourne Writers’ Festival, however, has chosen not to put Tingle’s oration online, even though it enjoys the public generosity of tax deductibility, even though the John Button Oration is normally made available to the public, and even though Tingle is an employee of the publicly-funded ABC.

From Slovakia a warning to demagogues

The attempted assignation of Slovakia’s Prime Minister Robert Fico should send a warning to all politicians who engage on the politics of division.

To some Pico was on the hard left, because of his earlier membership of the Communist Party and his contempt for rich elites. To others he was on the hard right, because of his press censorship, social conservatism, and support for Vladimir Putin and Victor Orbán.

Those classifications are immaterial, however: lies and demagoguery have no single political home. Whatever their ideological source those who use these political tactics do great damage to society. In this case the damage is to a fragile democracy re-established after domination by the Soviet Union. But we can see it happening in a much older democracy, the United States.

ABC European correspondents Kathryn Diss and Riley Stuart sound warnings to the world in their post: Why assassination attempt on Slovakia's PM Robert Fico will reverberate around the world.

It’s a warning Dutton should heed. Not so much for his political safety: all politicians, whatever their style, are vulnerable to the actions of some crank or deranged person. But he should be conscious of the way demagoguery and fear campaigns tear society apart. Does he really want that to be his legacy?