Category Archives: Australia

The release of David Hicks, a test of Australian values

Another moment to test the compassion of the Australian public, as the news has broken that David Hicks is to be released from prison, albeit under a control order. Although the Federal Police regard Mr Hicks as an ongoing danger it would seem that he currently poses little risk to others, considering his mental state (Sydney Morning Herald, 24/12/07):

DAVID HICKS’S mental condition is so fragile that – only five days before his scheduled release from jail – he suffers from agoraphobia and retreats to the kind of solitary confinement he endured for five years in Guantanamo Bay.The former Muslim extremist has suffered panic attacks and has ventured into the sunshine, in the prison yard, only once since his return to Australia in May this year to serve the balance of his nine-month sentence at Yatala Labour Prison in Adelaide. He could not cope and preferred the enclosed prison and artificial lighting, where he felt more safe.

Is it any surprise to read that Mr Hicks experiences panic attacks and agoraphobia, after his incarceration at Guantanamo Bay?   Imprisoned without trial for 5 years, kept in solitary and tortured with impunity, his case was a convenient political football for the Howard Government’s war on terror (until suddenly it wasn’t). His treatment is a sobering example of what any Australian citizen could experience if they are caught ideologically on the wrong side. Regardless of the legality of Mr Hick’s actions, Australia’s government was willing to trade away the country’s humanitarian values for political reasons.

I hope that Mr Hicks can be supported to lead a productive and peaceful life on his release, after all, isn’t this what Australia really stands for – a fair go?  

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Filed under Australia, Mental Health, Politics

Understanding Borderline Personality Disorder

The latest podcast from “All in the Mind” (the excellent ABC Radio National program about the mind, brain and behaviour) concerns borderline personality disorder (BPD) and is really worth a listen if you want to understand BPD in a sympathetic and informed way. The program explores the histories and motivations of people who attract this diagnosis, as well as providing a sobering look at the limitations of traditional psychiatric treatment with these problems.

The program features the testimony of several women who have been diagnosed with BPD, talking about their disappointing experiences of treatment from the psychiatric system, the stigma attached to the label “borderline”, and providing unflinching descriptions of childhood trauma and abuse as triggering experiences for the problems they have faced as adults. There is an excellent bit that describes the reasons why a person might use self harm to cope with powerful emotions and painful memories.

Interestingly, the program describes the treatment approach at the Spectrum Personality Disorder Service in Melbourne. It is reported that this treatment involves, amongst other things, skills training from Dialectical Behavior Therapy to help clients to learn self-soothing and emotional regulation, as well as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (particularly values clarification and commitment).  It is nice to hear about Australian mental health services developing approaches based on these contextual cognitive behavioural therapies.

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Filed under Australia, CBT, Clinical Psychology, cognitive behavioural therapy, Mental Health, Psychology

Anthropology and Counterinsurgency

Recently I read an article in the December 18 ’06 issue of the New Yorker by George Packer called “Knowing the Enemy“, about the involvement of anthropologists and other social scientists in developing strategic alternatives to counterinsurgency.

The article profiles the work of David Kilcullen, Australian anthropologist and Lieutenant Colonel in the Australian Army, who has been seconded to the US State Department as a strategist to develop counterinsurgency methods. Kilcullen’s ideas of how to approach counterinsurgency are based on his view that the “War on Terror” should be considered as an information war. This propaganda war is one that, unfortunately, the US and its allies are losing, while groups like Al Qaeda are much more savvy about setting the agenda for their message and making sure that it is heard.

Kilcullen asserts (while not directly criticising the Bush administration) that the current approach to counterinsurgency involves a number of mistakes being made, such as 1) aggregating all Jihad-inspired conflicts together so that local conflicts become part of a global problem (uniting disparate groups and not understanding the local grievances that might be causing conflict); 2) being clumsy in winning hearts and minds, due to not having enough cultural information about the populations involved in conflict; and 3) not understanding the modern sources of information to people in developing countries (ie., US Forces relying on broadcast media to provide information to local people, while insurgent groups will use text messaging, the internet etc.).

In March 2006 Kilcullen wrote the influential “Twenty Eight Articles: Fundamentals of Company-level Counterinsurgency”, a field guide aimed at company commanders whose units have been deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan. It is worth a look at for the type of approach he advocates. Whether this approach is one that the current US administration will follow is, of course, another story.

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Filed under Australia, Politics

The gentle art of Australian political invective: Paul Keating

One of the things that I miss about not living in Australia is the refreshing directness of language in parliamentary politics. A number of Australian politicians have exercised the extreme limits of parliamentary privilege when attacking the opposition, but the undisputed master in the art of political invective was (of course) former prime minister Paul Keating.

Watching Keating at work was genuinely entertaining, as he had a “take no prisoners” style when dealing with Opposition questions. One of my favourite occasions was when he was challenged by Coalition leader John Hewson to go to an early election, you can see Keating’s response courtesy of youtube:

Even Hewson laughed at that one.

If you enjoy such verbal rough-housing then you might like a trip down memory lane with the Paul Keating Insults Archive, showcasing some of his finest moments.

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A monument to pest control

In my home town of Dalby, Queensland there exists a monument in a small park by Myall Creek that has always seemed curious to me: it is a cairn dedicated to the cactoblastis cactorum (a moth originally found in Argentina).

Here are the details about it (from the Dalby Council website):

CACTOBLASTIS MEMORIAL CAIRN

A cairn was erected in Marble Street in 1965 to record the indebtedness of the people of Queensland (and Dalby in particular) to the Cactoblastis Cactorum. This tiny moth saved the Darling Downs from infestation by an introduced plant, the Prickly Pear.

A single, yellow flowering prickly pear was brought to Australia in 1839. By 1925 over 50 million acres of land in Queensland and New South Wales were covered with prickly pear, the greatest example known to man of any noxious plant invasion. The Dalby District was then heavily infested. It was impossible to effectively eradicate the weed either by sprays or cultivation. The land was rendered unusable and drove many from their farms.

The first eggs of the Cactoblastis Cactorum moth were imported from Argentina early in 1925 and were bred in very large numbers and liberated throughout the prickly pear territory. Within 10 years the insect had destroyed all the dense mass of prickly pear.

The cairn is located on Myall Creek as a lasting monument to the Cactoblastis Cactorum and its victory over the prickly pear menace.

For a long while I had wondered whether it was the only monument in the world to an insect, although I have subsequently learnt about the Boll Weevil Monument in the town of Enterprise, Alabama (which is, as you can see from the link, a grander monument than the humble cairn in Dalby).

The prickly pear cactus apparently was orginally brought to Australia with the First Fleet, as host cacti for the cochineal insect, exploited to produce a distinctive red dye (highly prized in Europe in the early 19th century and used, amongst other things, for the the British Red Coats). There was a strong economic imperative for the British Empire to establish an alternative source for cochineal dye at the time of colonisation, as it was produced solely in Mexico (which was under Spanish control). [Incidentally cochineal dye is still used today as a food colouring, E120]

Unfortunately, as the history of Australia has demonstrated several times, using introduced species can be a blessing and a curse, as cactoblastis cactorum is now poised to wreak havoc in Mexico. Following the successful Australian example of biological pest control, the moth has been used around the world to eradicate infestations of cacti on agricultural land, including in the Caribbean, which allows a short hurricane-blown trip to the Mexican shore… where there is plenty of nice, juicy cactus for caterpillars to chew on. The saviour has become the pest.

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Who is the most effective political liar?

The London Review of Books recently published an article on lying in politics, describing the actions of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown at the Labour Party Conference (where Cherie Blair was overheard saying “well, that’s a lie” when Brown professed his ongoing affection for the PM), as a case of where “the boldest and best liar won”. The author goes on to describe the deftness of Tony Blair’s skills in deception and fidelity to the spirit of contemporary politics in terms of fabrication. The article also describes another case where a Prime Minister made a deal with his deputy about accession and then apparently reneged: the current situation with Australian PM John Howard and Deputy Peter Costello.

It got me thinking about who would be the “boldest and best liar” if you compared John Howard and Tony Blair, particularly through the prism of their effectiveness in deceiving the electorate, winning elections and keeping power (ie., shafting their deputies).

Now, I do remember that Blair’s nickname for a time was “Teflon Tony”, as he seemed to have an uncanny skill at keeping electorate approval despite his government making unpopular decisions. However he is now infamous for lying to the electorate about the reasons for the Iraq war and it may be argued that this has led to him being a liability to his Party in terms of re-election. Blair has kept his deputy in check, but it seems only just, and for only a matter of time…

But Blair has nothing on John Howard in terms of effectiveness in lying to the electorate and getting away with it. Howard has been in power for longer than Blair and fought more elections (5 to Blair’s 3). He has been “caught” lying on more occasions (about the “Children Overboard” affair, Medicare, Iraq, industrial relations, etc.). This is the man who was so blatant about lying to the electorate to get elected that he established the concept of “core” and “non-core” promises, now part of Australian political life. His ability to play wedge politics is second-to-none and he continues to have a high approval rating, unlike contemporaries Blair and Bush.

There was a great letter to the editor after the “Liars” article in the LRB extolling the merits of Blair and Howard, and who is the more effective politician:

“Howard is a politician par excellence, and Tony Blair will never hold a candle to him. Why? Well, to use the parlance of the Australian street, Blair may be as flash as a rat with a gold tooth, but Howard is as cunning as a shithouse rat.” Michael Wong, 16 November 2006

It makes me proud to be Australian.

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