Sir Nicholas Winton: saviour, people smuggler, hero?

The sad news of the death of a great and humble man came out overnight:

“Sir Nicholas Winton, who organised the rescue of 669 children destined for Nazi concentration camps, has died aged 106.

Sir Nicholas, then a stockbroker, arranged for trains to carry Jewish children out of occupied Prague.


He, like others during the 1930s and World War Two period, took action at great personal risk to aid refugees in fleeing persecution by the Nazis.  And he did this at a time when countries all around the world were rejecting Jewish refugees and returning them to persecution.

People of all stations in life assisted Jewish refugees. Even HRH Prince Philip’s mother, Princess Alice, gave refuge to a Jewish family in her own home in Athens during the war at great personal risk.

I honour Sir Nicholas and people like him who faced up to a great moral challenge and who took action. They are heroes and deserve our admiration.

The experiences of those persecuted by the Nazis in World War Two led to the establishment of the United Nations’ 1951 Refugee Convention.

This Convention established the principle that people might seek refuge when facing “a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular group, or political opinion. ”

Yet today people, like Sir Nicholas, who seek to assist refugees in fleeing persecution would be called people smugglers.

Australia seeks to reject asylum seekers who arrive by sea and has even established a punitive internment camp regime as part of a series of deterrent measures.

It is interesting to consider Australia’s response to asylum seekers and refugees in the light of the following definition of ‘concentration camp’:

“The term concentration camp refers to a camp in which people are detained or confined, usually under harsh conditions and without regard to legal norms of arrest and imprisonment that are acceptable in a constitutional democracy. ”

Via Holocaust Encyclopedia

With refugees and asylum seekers today we seem to be repeating the sins of our forebears. This is a tragedy for the human beings who are suffering, and for our national conscience in the face of this moral challenge.

It is clear that local solutions will not suffice and that coordinated measures are the necessary and humane requirement.


Politics of Social – Social Media Week Sydney 2014

As part of Social Media Week Sydney 2014 I was honoured to host a panel discussion about the Politics of Social.

The panel made for a lively and interesting chat – wish we could have had more time as there was much more to discuss!

Panel Members

  • Ariadne Vromen – Associate Professor, The University of Sydney
  • Alex Greenwich – Independent Member for Sydney, Parliament of NSW
  • Stilgherrian – Journalist, Commentator, Producer, Podcaster
  • Steph Harmon – Managing Editor , Junkee at The Sound Alliance

Ariadne Vromen  Alex Greenwich
Stilgherrian Steph Harmon.

Here’s the video of our discussion…

Sky News – Politics and Social Media

Had a chat with David Speers, John Bergin, and Graham Young on Sky News yesterday.

We discussed recent events in politics as played out in social media.

Topics included – Julia Gillard’s visit to Western Sydney, the rise of surveillance and sousveillance with mobile phone cameras, the Mardi Gras police video, 457 visas, xenophobia/dog whistle politics by both parties, and the Liberal leadership spill in Victoria.

Dissent and Securing Freedom – Aung San Suu Kyi shares her ideas

Over the weekend I listened to this moving  talk from the Burmese pro-democracy leader and Nobel Peace Laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, where she examines what drives people to dissent.

Reflecting on the history of her own party, the National League for Democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi, examines the meaning of opposition and dissident. She also explains her reasons for following the path of non-violence.

If you’re interested in freedom and dissent then Aung San Suu Kyi’s talk at the 2011 Reith Lecture is worth spending 45 minutes on (there’s a few news items before the talk commences).

A transcript of Aung San Suu Kyi’s talk is also available for download (PDF).

Openness & transparency in Government – Microsoft Politics & Technology Forum #poltech

Just finished a dinner in Canberra with @IainDale @msgovtech @craigthomler @purserj @piawaugh @stilgherrian @peterjblack @nickhodgemsft @markpesce @gcarraro before the forum tomorrow.

We had some really lively discussions about politics, society, transparency and government. With this group one must really fight to get a word in edgewise! But Iain Dale, who is presenting the keynote tomorrow, managed to hold his own with aplomb.

Iain is an interesting character whose involvement in Conservative UK politics made for some remarkable stories (a few of which shall remain untold here) and insights. I enjoyed finding out about some of the a differences between the British ways of politics and our local customs.

You can follow tweets for the forum tomorrow on Twitter on the hashtag #poltech and there’s some more information on the Microsoft GovTech blog.

What’s in a name? Pirate, freedom fighter or terrorist

I recently discovered that one of my ancestors was arrested by the British in 1828 as a pirate and sent to Australia as a convict. He had originally been sentenced to death, but he appealed to the King and his sentence was commuted to life as a convict in Australia.

It was pretty cool to discover that my relative was both a pirate and a convict – Talk Like a Pirate Day will probably never be the same.

But then I started to delve a bit further into this story and the layers of complexity began to emerge.

My ancestor, Damianos Ninis, was a Greek freedom fighter in the Greek War of Independence (1821-1832) – a war against Ottoman Turkish oppression.

It is reported that at his trial the defence argued that:

the Greeks who were fighting a war against the Turks had the right “under international law to remove articles of war from a neutral ship proceeding to an enemy-occupied port (namely, Alexandria).” The verdict rendered by the Court stated that Manolis, Ninis and Vasilakis were to be sentenced to death, whilst Boulgaris, Papandreou, Stroumboulis and Laritsos though sentenced to death “but with a recommendation of these four to mercy, since, they had not taken a leading part nor committed any act of violence.”
Source: A History of Greek Migration and Settlement to Australia by Stavros T.Stavridis

It turns out that Damianos survived his time in Australia, having arrived on the ship Norfolk in 1829. He was granted a complete pardon in 1836 and returned to Greece the following year. Two of his sons later returned to Australia, hence the family line continues here.

All of this got me thinking about how important the words we use really are.

It is likely that Damianos and his compatriots considered themselves to be freedom fighters against an oppressive regime. To the Turks they were probably classified as terrorists, and the British categorised them as pirates.

I wonder how we can work this kind of thing out now. Who is a freedom fighter, who is a terrorist?

The question is very apt now with wars and upheavals leading to various waves of refugees, and continuing unrest in Palestine, North Africa and the Middle East. And I suspect that there are no easy answers.

Findings of the UWS Challenging Racism research

Starting in 1998, a UWS research project has been in progress on the geography of racism in NSW.

Key findings of the Racism project include:

  • While racism is quite prevalent in Australian society its occurrences differ from place to place.
  • These variations have been largely overlooked by anti-racism campaigns in Australia.
  • Most Australians recognise that racism is a problem in society.
  • Racist attitudes are positively associated with age, non-tertiary education, and to a slightly lesser extent with those who do not speak a language other than English, the Australia-born, and with males.

There are very interesting local insights into racism in Australia – there’s an interactive map of the findings by region. And you can download the national findings here (in PDF format).

Some real food for thought.

Thanks to @Jinjirrie for bringing this report to my attention.

Democracy in action, civil society and political change

Yesterday in New South Wales there was a major shift in the state’s political landscape. We saw a significant shift in voting with enormous swings against the ALP across the state and especially in traditional heartland seats.

The Liberals won seats in which they’d never imagined a serious contest. As election guru Antony Green noted:

“It’s very hard to believe it when you see a 30 per cent swing in a seat, which is what we saw in several seats.

They are astonishing figures; I mean there wouldn’t have been swings of that size since the Great Depression, since the defeat of Scullin, they are mammoth swings and that’s a very difficult thing to really get on top of on the night.”
Source: ABC’s election analyst ‘astonished’ by swing

What is of particular interest is that all of this change happened without any bloodshed. In fact, the leaders of each side – Kristina Kenneally for the ALP and Barry O’Farrell for the Liberal-National Coalition – maintained a civil demeanour towards each other throughout the campaign.

Apart from the odd bit of local bastardry – such as defacing posters – there were no reports of shots fired, no reports of fisticuffs, and no emotionally tinged polemics.

Instead, Barry O’Farrell (who has performed the miracle of unifying the Liberal-National Coalition) in his victory speech noted that his opponent, Kenneally, was a “skilled communicator and gutsy performer“.

While Kenneally noted in her concession speech:

“Tonight we acknowledge and accept the decision of the people of NSW,” she said speaking from the Randwick Labor Club. “And we accept their decision with humility and good grace.

“The people of NSW always get it right and so tonight I congratulate Mr O’Farrell and I wish him, and the government that he will form all the best.

This is a great place to live and to be free to exercise our democratic rights in peace. Unlike Ivory Coast where elections saw fifty-two people killed only a few days ago.

Complain about the political system in Australia if you like, but we are really a lucky country.

A real concern is the rise of divisive and un-civil behaviour in Australian federal politics. We need to fight against this rise of invective driven politics where personal attacks are the norm. It’s time to keep our traditions of a good fair fight that lets the people decide at the ballot box and which follows the rules of engagement set down in legislation.

Well played to both Barry O’Farrell and Kristina Kenneally. Good to see a change of government in NSW – sixteen years was a tad too long for any one party to rule.

#Digicitz 9: Politics & Digital Activism in the Social Age

Tomorrow night I’ll be hosting a panel for Digital Citizens on Politics and Digital Activism in the Social Age. The panel has a fascinating and diverse group of people:

  • Penny Sharpe – Labor Parliamentary Secretary for Transport and Roads
  • John Bergin – Director of Digital News for Sky News
  • Steve Hopkins – from Ai-Media
  • Thomas Tudehope – Director of Engagement and Strategy for SR7

These panel members are all active in social media and each is a practitioner at the coalface of digital activism. They have some remarkable stories and experiences to share about the changes that the digital revolution has brought to the political and activist worlds. And each panel member brings a unique perspective of politics and digital activism.

The venue for this event is the Shelbourne Hotel, 200 Sussex Street, Sydney, doors open at 6.30pm for a 7pm start. Tickets are $10 with 50% going to charity Sydney Cats and Dogs Home – who shelter over 4,000 lost and unwanted animals each year.

If you can’t make it tomorrow night then please consider donating to the Sydney Cats and Dogs Home Parched March fundraiser.

Freedom – the price and the value #Libya #auspol

What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.
Oscar Wilde, in Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892)

It has been fascinating to watch the progress of the various revolutions in north Africa and the middle east, in particular the travails of the Libyan people trying to oust the long-standing dictator Gaddafi.

Unlike the other countries in the region, the Libyan dictator has a strong army and he is not afraid to use the full might of his arms against his own people.

In Libya we are seeing people rise up against a tyrant and face arms to achieve their freedom. They are weighing up the price and the value of their freedom in important ways.

It has got me thinking about how one might value freedom and what price one might be willing to pay to achieve it.

In Australia we are divorced from harsh realities like this. We live in a wealthy nation with high levels of education, low levels of unemployment and a working democracy. For many of us our main problem is what kind of plasma television to get next time. These are first world problems.

Our politicians argue about relative trivialities. And now we have both sides of politics in Australia polarising and calling for so-called Peoples’ Revolution.

I think that this kind of polarisation is one of stupidest ways to attempt to create a positive future for Australia. We need to create shared values and agreed common ground in the middle. We need to build consensus and have our politicians work together on that common ground in a bi-partisan way.

This current political climate of negativity, anger, personal attacks, slurs and invective does help us to create a positive future for Australia. Nor does it model good behaviour for our young people.

It’s time for the moderates to stand up and be counted.