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Any excuse

Any excuse

Exploiting the war on terror

The most obvious consequence of the ‘war on terror’ has been more wars. First Afghanistan, now Iraq. Proponents of the wars argue forcefully that wars are necessary to protect (and project) Western values of democracy, freedom and the rule of law.

To achieve this, civilians have been killed—in greater numbers than those who died in the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Centre in September 2001. It is increasingly apparent that these ongoing
wars have been used as smokescreens to conceal attacks on those same freedoms within Western countries.

Batasuna is one of the largest Basque political parties in Spain. In August 2002, Batasuna was banned in a joint manoeuvre by judicial authorities and the Spanish Parliament—with 90 per cent of MPs voting in favour of the ban. Batasuna stood accused of links with the terrorist group ETA, which has waged a 30-year struggle for independence. Seven hundred people have been killed in that struggle. All offices of the party, which attracts just 10 per cent of the vote in Basque regions of northern Spain, were declared illegal and forcibly closed in violent police raids. Ordinary Spaniards—a people with a love of street demonstrations, including protests in Madrid by two million opposed to the war in Iraq—scarcely batted an eyelid. The main newspaper, El Pais, a bastion of liberal good sense, strongly supported the move. The right to freedom of association was never mentioned.

In February 2003 Marcelo Otamendi, editor-in-chief of Egunkaria (the largest, if not the only Basque-language newspaper in Spain) was arrested along with nine colleagues. The newspaper was, like Batasuna, outlawed and closed. Upon his release, Otamendi made detailed allegations against the police of torture, including death threats, claiming that ‘they twice forced a plastic bag over my head, made me crouch naked, and pointed an unloaded pistol against my temple, whilst constantly hurling insults about Basque culture and Basque politicians’. With cross-party support, the Spanish Interior Minister, Angel Acebes, pointedly refused to investigate the allegations. Acebes seemed not to have heard of freedom of speech and stated simply: ‘In this country, the only ones who violate basic human rights are ETA, who torture and kill.’

Spain is not alone in winding back the clock on human rights.

In February 2003, it was revealed that the Deputy Commissioner of Police in Frankfurt, Wolfgang Daschner, had signed a written order instructing subordinates to extract information ‘by means of the infliction of pain, under medical supervision and subject to prior warning’. Torture or the threat of torture is punishable by a ten-year prison term. But conservative politicians expressed sympathy for the deputy commissioner’s dilemma, as he struggled against time to track down a kidnapped boy. The head of the German Judges Federation, Geert Mackenroth, stated that, ‘There are situations that cannot be resolved by legal means, and in which legally protected rights have to be weighed, the one against the other’.

Elsewhere in Europe, police in France and Austria have been accused by Amnesty International and other human rights agencies of mistreating detainees as a matter of course.

In post-September-11 America, nearly 1200 people were detained and held in conditions of the utmost secrecy. They were detained mostly on minor immigration charges or flimsy evidence such as a person having a similar name to a ‘known terrorist’. Were this to happen elsewhere, it would be described as arbitrary, unlawful imprisonment. The 598 prisoners at Camp Delta (formerly Camp X-Ray) have been designated as ‘enemy combatants’, not prisoners of war. They have therefore been denied access to any form of legal protection under US law and the provisions of the Geneva Convention. Leaks from
Washington strongly suggest that there are no al Qaeda members of any importance among the prisoners.

The arrest of alleged al Qaeda mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, on 4 March 2003, indicates what may be happening behind closed doors. US officials promised that he would not be tortured but would be subjected to ‘extreme pressure’ in the form of round-the-clock interrogations, sleep deprivation, psychological manipulation, exposure to bitter cold or intense heat and truth drugs. Three days later, it was revealed that American soldiers in Bagram, north of Kabul, beat to death, over the course of weeks, two Afghan prisoners.

In the lead-up to the war in Iraq, the United Nations was much maligned by the United States for being ineffective and unwilling to enforce the resolutions of the Security Council. UN inaction, the US claimed, would fatally damage the credibility of the world body and persuade rogue states that they can flout UN resolutions with impunity. The US has said nothing of binding UN treaties that declare the inviolability of human rights.
Anthony Ham

Privatise or perish

The end of medicare

Recent Medicare statistics indicate a ten per cent decrease in the number of bulk-billed consultations with GPs since the election of the Howard government. Kay Patterson, the federal Minister for Health and Aging, is planning a major overhaul of the system, promising a more equitable and accessible system. The Opposition and the Doctor’s Reform Society believe it represents the ‘end of Medicare’.

I work in a busy outer-suburban emergency department. I am inclined to wonder why many patients with minor ailments (coughs and colds) choose to wait up to three hours for a two-minute consultation with me, rather than seeing their local GP.

The answers: ‘They’re booked out for a week’; ‘We’ve just moved to the area and can’t find a doctor who is taking new patients’; ‘My doctor doesn’t bulk bill and I can’t afford to pay.’

The problem of access to GPs in outer suburbia is due both to insufficient doctor numbers and skewed geographical distribution of GPs. Changes in vocational training also mean that doctors are encouraged to spend more time with patients, addressing preventive issues as well as the immediate problem.

Medicare rebates have not kept up with these changes, nor with inflation. It is impossible to run a practice reliant only on bulk billing without reducing consultation times or working extraordinary hours. Care is compromised and errors become more likely.

Kay Patterson does not believe that increasing the Medicare rebate will fix the problem. The government plans to make co-payments directly to doctors and to permit health insurers to insure ‘gap’ costs. Incentives are promised to encourage doctors to bulk bill low-income earners, though there is talk of restricting this to outer-suburban and regional areas. The government promises that no matter where you live you will have access to a doctor you can afford. But it all sounds suspiciously like another step towards a ‘user-pays’ system.

Prior to the 1996 election, John Howard promised to maintain Medicare ‘in its entirety’. Yet the 30 per cent rebate for those joining a health fund, and the one per cent Medicare surcharge for high-income earners who don’t, suggest that this was not one of Howard’s ‘core promises’. The current co-payment proposal will cut through the red tape. Yet if private health funds cover ‘gap’ insurance, doctors will then be free to charge increasingly higher amounts for co-payments—all of which means that there is greater pressure to take out private health insurance.

The government seems intent on dragging us into a wholly user-pays system. Many Australians are familiar with horror stories from the US health care system. But, one might argue, such a system has its good points. Theoretically, a user-pays system encourages greater independence among patients—compliance with medications and preventive strategies, for example—resulting in fewer recurrent presentations to the doctor. One country emergency department in Victoria charges a $10 ‘door fee’ on Saturday night to dissuade those who don’t really need to be there. There are times on a busy shift when I have wished we could do the same.

Dr Gwen Gray, lecturer in health policy at the Australian National University, urges caution. She points to the Rand Health Insurance Experiment, which looked at the impact of such systems in the US. The study found simply that the well-off used more services and the low-income earners used less. Preventive services were particularly affected. And higher mortality rates and incidences of disease were found among the ‘sick-poor’.

The Howard government promises to look after the poor with incentives for doctors to bulk bill patients with health-care cards. The danger is that if ‘poor’ means only those patients with health-care cards (who have an annual income of less than $30,000), those just above the cut-off may suffer significant financial hardship if they become ill. And if the incentives apply only in regional and outer-suburban areas where doctors are scarce, what about low-income earners and pensioners in cities? Aren’t we creating a two-tier system, as suggested by Annette Ellis, Shadow Minister for Health and Aging—a barrier between rich and poor where access to a GP is based ‘not on health but on wealth’?

The Rand Experiment suggests it is dangerous to view health as just another commodity. Despite this, our government continues to push for a fully privatised system. I expect that the number of patients presenting to emergency departments will continue to rise if these changes to Medicare are put in place—until the hospital system is pushed to the edge and forced to privatise or perish.
Kath O’Connor

Clear and present danger

The aftermath of Iraq

It may be years before we know the full story about the US-led war on Iraq, and are able to sort the truth from the half-truths, disinformation and war propaganda.The issue now is: will this Western invasion of Iraq unleash new demons to torment us for years to come?

Disturbing questions remain about the justification for the war. The US, British and Australian governments failed to provide transparent proof that there was a just cause, that war was undertaken with legitimate authority and as the last resort, and that the costs and suffering involved were proportionate to the goal.

Mr Howard warned about the danger of weapons of mass destruction falling into the hands of terrorists, a circumstance that ‘would present a clear, undeniable and lethal threat’ to Western nations like
Australia. The prime minister conjured up fearful images of what Saddam might do. This was not cogent proof.

The prime minister’s arguments flew in the face of the just war criteria, which insist that the burden of proof lies on those proposing war.

The moral case for war was never made. First, containment did not fail. Saddam’s weakened forces were surrounded by one of the most powerful armies in history. Even without that, had Iraq threatened anyone militarily, the UN, including the United States, would surely have intervened

Second, the coalition invaded Iraq on the pretext that Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction posed an imminent threat to the West, even though no-one knew whether Iraq still had such weapons or if they were usable (most have a short shelf-life). Weapons inspectors had already destroyed the overwhelming bulk of Iraq’s weapons, and assured the UN that it had no current nuclear capability.
As long as the inspections continued, it was highly unlikely that Saddam would have been able to develop or deploy them, even if he had them. It would appear that concern about these weapons was exaggerated for political effect.

Third, Mr Howard claimed to be worried that Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction would encourage others to acquire them. At least 15 nations in Asia and the Middle East already have them. Is Mr Howard intending to follow this logic, and intervene militarily against such nations—Syria, Iran, North Korea, Libya, Sudan, Pakistan perhaps?

Fourth, Mr Howard said he feared that the spread of such weapons increased the risk of their falling into the hands of terrorists. But Saddam was not likely to hand over such weapons unless, as the CIA warned, he faced a terminal attack. How paradoxical. What’s more, as we know, a terrorist can turn an airliner into a weapon of mass destruction. Why go to all the trouble of acquiring chemical weapons?

Fifth, the most affecting of the coalition’s arguments was that Saddam was responsible for the hunger of children in Iraq.

Certainly he shared the responsibility, but the UN sanctions were also culpable and were deliberately kept in place for many years despite protests that they were costing hundreds of thousands of lives. Pope John Paul II, in 1998, called such sanctions‘biological warfare’ against an innocent population.

What did the Australian government do to ameliorate the savage effects of these sanctions? Responsible commentators have talked of the sanctions in terms of ‘genocide’, yet when will we see an independent Australian inquiry into our involvement with these policies? Australia helped police and enforce the sanctions. Do such actions implicate Australia in crimes against humanity? 

Bruce Duncan

Keep left unless undertaking

Signing off

The signs are worrying. The sticker affixed to the rear window of my Toyota Crown identifies me as the recipient of an award for ‘Excellence in Driving’. I know what’s what.

But despite my exemplary skills behind the wheel, I just can’t keep my eyes on the road. It’s all the road signs. Sure, they’re difficult to read as I hurtle past them at a frightening speed. But that’s not the
problem. Even the ones I do manage to read are completely incomprehensible.

There’s the one that says ‘Drowsy Drivers Die’. Is that a directive? Like ‘Die Yuppie Die’ was for the ’80s? Or is it a statistical concept: ‘Drowsiness is more likely to make you smash yourself and your fellow road users into a million little pieces.’ Evidently, the latter.

Further down the road there’s another placard offering free tea and coffee compliments of the local constabulary. And that’s without even being arrested.

I keep my foot pressed flat to the boards. The speedo wobbles up past 90 km/h. KEEP LEFT UNLESS OVERTAKING zips past my right shoulder. Big sign that one. Looks like it should be read. Wants to be read … I know I’ve seen it before … there are a few of them on this road … colourful, too … What the hell did it say again? If I just stay here in the right lane maybe I’ll be able to read it next time it comes around …

By the time the sign reappears, there’s a decent convoy of trucks, vans, buses and cars trailing me at an affectionately close distance. Some have been kind enough to acknowledge my presence with a friendly toot on their horns.

But you know my type—there’s no way I’m gonna budge. It’s a matter of principle. I no longer acknowledge the idea of ‘left’ and ‘right’.

Our road etiquette logically reflects an advanced state of evolution: Victorian
motorists will never obey a sign that implores them to keep left, no matter how many coffees the cops throw at us. The existence of these futile road signs proves that somebody out there is still having
difficulty getting a handle on the concept.

I’ll try to state this as simply as possible: right is right and left is wrong.

You can have what’s left, be left behind, get left in the lurch, get leftovers … You can be a left-handed ten-percenter southpaw criminally insane genius. You can be left out completely: exiled.

Or you can be right. You can have the right, the Bill of Rights, while you’re doing the right thing, thinking right because it’s the right time for everything to be all right. (Apologies to the multitude of pop-song writers whose copyrights I have no doubt breached in the previous sentence.)

So I’m staying firmly planted here in the right lane. I’m not going near that sinister left lane. I don’t care who’s behind me.

By gluing my vehicle into the right lane I can insist that other drivers do the right thing, stay on the right side of the law … you know I’m right, don’t you?
Clive Shepherd

This month’s contributors: Anthony Ham is Eureka Street’s roving correspondent; Kath O’Connor is a freelance writer and emergency doctor; Bruce Duncan cssr co-ordinates the social justice studies program at Yarra Theological Union in Melbourne, and his 54-page booklet, War on Iraq: Is It Just? is available from ACSJC, (02) 9956 5811, $6.50 including postage; Clive Shepherd is a freelance writer.



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