Tagged: John Howard

Snail’s place

In 1996, Dr John Stanisic, then curator of invertebrates at the Queensland Museum, was doing a routine environmental impact assessment near Taroom in southern central Queensland, some 380 kilometres north-west of Brisbane. The purpose of Stanisic’s survey was to check for rare and threatened species around an impoundment for the proposed Nathan Dam, on the Dawson River.

The dam was a controversial project in the district, as it would have flooded large areas of arable farmland. The usual arguments were trotted out about jobs for the local community. The water, it was said, would supply the needs of the local towns. Others suspected that the real reason was to service a proposed mine at nearby Wondoan, now in mothballs due to the tanking price of coal.

Stanisic and his team were checking an unusual habitat called boggomoss, where natural springs emerge from the Great Artesian Basin and create small lagoons in the otherwise dry semi-arid woodlands of the Brigalow Belt. One of his team, who was searching for isopods (which the rest of us know as slaters), unearthed a snail from the leaf litter. “I knew right away what it was,” Stanisic says. “It was like, Eureka!”

Stanisic, who goes by the name of the Snail Whisperer on his own website – he has discovered and described some 900 species since 1980 – had been searching for this particular mollusc for 10 years. He recognised it instantly from one of two shells in the museum’s collection, historically collected from the nearby township of Theodore, but otherwise completely unknown in the wild.

Stanisic then went through the process of formally describing and naming the species: Adclarkia dawsonensis, the Boggomoss Snail. As its entire known habitat was about to disappear into a pit, he also went through the process of listing it for protection. “It takes about a 12-page pro-forma to get one of these things through, it’s like filling out a census form, and you’ve got to know a bit about the snail first,” he says.

The snail halted development of the dam, and its oddly triumphant story is an instructive one. Last week, the office of the Threatened Species Commissioner Gregory Andrews released an updated list of threatened species under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act of 1999. It has been widely and erroneously reported that 49 species were added to the list.

This is not true: 21 species were added, including six mammals, seven birds, six plants, an insect and a fish. One species, the Swift Parrot, was upgraded from the endangered to critically endangered category, and a further 27 already listed species were updated to reflect changes in their currently accepted names and taxonomy, with no change to their status. Two species were deleted from the list altogether.

Nonetheless, it was the biggest update to the list since 2009, and took the number of threatened species listed – and thus protected – under the EPBC Act to 1,794. “That legislation is relatively strong,” says Chris Pavey, an arid zone ecologist with the CSIRO in Alice Springs. “If you want to go ahead with a development, you can’t ignore any EPBC-listed species on your land; there’s just no way around it.”

When the left professes a grudging admiration for former Prime Minister John Howard, it is usually for strengthening gun laws in the wake of the Port Arthur massacre in 1996. But the EPBC Act, which passed with the aid of the Democrats’ Meg Lees as part of the deal for getting the GST through the Senate, is the other piece of legislation it should thank him for.

That deal ultimately destroyed the Democrats, but it left a profound environmental legacy. Its efficacy was demonstrated last August, when the Federal Court stayed development of Adani’s Carmichael coal mine on account of federal environment minister Greg Hunt’s failure to consider the mine’s impact on two threatened species: the Yakka Skink and the Ornamental Snake.

The halting of the mine on account of two reptiles caused apoplexy within the Abbott government. The Senate had repeatedly frustrated its attempts to de-fang the EPBC Act via its “One Stop Shop” legislation, an attempt to streamline environmental approvals for large projects by handing the process to the states as part of its war on so-called green tape.

The decision also proved the act recognised, very simply, that all species have an inherent right to exist and are deserving of our protection: the obscure as well as the iconic.

The problem, as the snail shows, is that we aren’t even close to knowing the extent of our own biodiversity. According to A.D. Chapman’s 2009 edition of The Number of Living Species in Australia and the World, Australia has an estimated 566,398 types of plants, animals and fungi. Of these, only 147,579 have been formally described and named. Stanisic says 700 of Australia’s snails alone remained formally undescribed.

This illustrates two issues: the paucity of taxonomists in Australia, and that we are potentially at risk of losing thousands more species from under our noses. “There are many species about which we know almost nothing that probably merit listing and we simply don’t know anything about them,” says John Woinarski, deputy director of the Threatened Species Recovery Hub and a professor at Charles Darwin University.

Worldwide, about 18,000 new species are described each year, roughly 75 percent of which are invertebrates. And taxonomists themselves are a threatened species. Much of the work is left to museums, with small staffs and limited resources. “We actually need people to be out there finding and describing new species,” Pavey says. “Way before cuts started happening to research-based organisations like the CSIRO, museums have been copping it for a long time.”

A related problem is the tendency to prioritise cute and colourful megafauna. “People tend to forget that small animals and plants form 99 percent of our terrestrial biodiversity,” Stanisic says. “But they get less than .001 percent of a look-in when it comes to assessments and environmental surveys. Yet they have so much to tell us about what the fine-grain make-up of the landscape is.”

Woinarski says that while creatures like the Leadbeater’s Possum play an important public relations role in raising awareness of conservation issues, they create a bias at the expense of less charismatic species. And because so little is known about so much of our fauna and flora, the process of listing them as threatened is slow, finite, and ad-hoc. In some years, marine animals might be the theme; reptiles in others.

“There’s a substantial degree of evidence that’s required, and for many of the most poorly known and most restricted species, there’s simply not enough knowledge to satisfy the onus for listing,” Woinarski says. “Many other species in Australia are highly imperilled and deserve to be listed, but aren’t. So our conservation problems are likely to be far worse than what is currently apparent.”

Further, as the sad decline of the of the Swift Parrot shows, listing a species is no guarantee of saving it. “The act is far less good at dealing with more pervasive and subtle and insidious threats, such as predation by feral cats,” Woinarski says. “We need to understand the threats that are affecting threatened species and ensure we can combat those threats far more effectively than what we’re doing at the moment.”

Years before his move into politics, former Queensland premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen pioneered a way of clearing the Brigalow woodlands around his Kingaroy peanut farm by pulling a heavy chain between two bulldozers, a method still being used today in the mulga woodlands further west. These days, almost all of what remains of the Brigalow is on roadside verges, with next to none protected.

Stanisic points out that he has since found two more critically endangered snails in those remnants of Brigalow around Dalby, Chinchilla and Miles, now the heart of coal seam gas development. “Every type of bushland I look at, I find another one,” he says cheerily. “I’m just in the process of describing two large snails from Queensland; it’s really quite amazing that things that large can still be un-named in 2016.”

Invertebrate zoology, he says, remains a wide-open field of study. The Snail Whisperer signs off with a flourish: “Anything I can do to promote the snail world, the better!”

First published in The Saturday Paper, 14 May 2016

The Drones: Feelin Kinda Free

When right-wing columnist/performance artist Andrew Bolt heard the Drones’ single Taman Shud, he wrote that the band was “stamping on the ashes of the West’s musical traditions”. Supposedly offended by the thought that singer Gareth Liddiard didn’t give a toss about anything he said, he added: “critics like these make me feel like I’m offending exactly the right kind of people”.

Naturally, the Drones were delighted. First, they would no doubt feel exactly the same way about offending Bolt and his tabloid constituency. Second, the group has taken a serious left turn with their seventh album, Feelin Kinda Free. “We said ‘fuck it’ and went spaz,” Liddiard told The Guardian last October. He couldn’t have dreamed of a better critical endorsement than Bolt’s “stamping on the ashes” line.

“It’s a pretty weird record and you can dance to it,” Liddiard said of the album. “It’s time to have a groovy Drones record. We’re sick of being a bunch of drags.” With respect, Bolt’s description was pithier, more accurate and more complimentary. Taman Shud was one of the most compelling singles of last year, but good luck to anyone who hit the dance floor to its skittish rhythms.

Boredom, the sixth track on Feelin Kinda Free, is in a similar vein. If the Drones once came on like the mutant, brawling blues-punk offspring of the Birthday Party and the Beasts of Bourbon, this sounds more like the mostly forgotten Australian post-punk of Pel Mel and Sardine v. Frankly, it’s a lot more interesting and original, stamping all over the Drones’ own musical traditions.

“The best songs are like bad dreams,” mutters Liddiard in Private Execution. It’s a fabulous opening line – and what follows is a succession of nightmares. Always fascinated by Australian history, the Drones were once the musical equivalent of a McCubbin painting; pioneers trapped in foreign landscapes. Here they take a step into the avant-garde world of the Angry Penguins, Albert Tucker and Sidney Nolan.

The Angry Penguins movement was an interrogation, and rejection, of an earlier kind of Australian nationalism represented by the bush balladeers. Feelin Kinda Free is as decisive a repudiation, both of the Drones’ past and of the mythic, monocultural Australian vision of John Howard, Tony Abbott and, yes, Andrew Bolt: “I don’t give a fuck if you can’t stop the boats,” Liddiard sneers in Taman Shud.

The dominant themes here are immigration and its attendant cousin, paranoia. And Then They Came For Me finds Liddiard “feeling like I’ve overstayed”. On the album’s final track, Shut Down SETI, he imagines Fortress Australia overrun by aliens: “Do we need an overlord that finds us underwhelming? You don’t defend your house and home by jumping down a rabbit hole.”

Taman Shud and Boredom aside, Feelin Kinda Free slithers by like a serpent in search of its next meal. The feel is unhurried, but menacing. While the songs still stretch out like elastic, there are only eight of them, so at 41 minutes, the album doesn’t outstay its welcome. The emphasis is mostly on bass and percussion: guitars are heavily treated; frequently, you’d be forgiven for thinking there are no guitars at all.

The closest thing to anything from the Drones’ past is the agonised To Think I Was In Love With You, which sits squarely in the album’s centre without dragging it down. Otherwise, Feelin Kinda Free sounds like the work of a less dour and far more subversive band. Despite the subject matter and often funereal pace, it’s anything but a drag.

First published in The Guardian, 18 March 2016

Out in the heartland, no rocker is safe from right-wingers

It’s getting to the stage where there practically isn’t a heartland rocker left whose songs haven’t been egregiously misused for conservative political ends. In America, it’s Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, John Mellencamp and Neil Young. Now, in Australia, it’s Jimmy Barnes, who has been forced to distance himself from anti-immigration groups Reclaim Australia and the United Patriots Front, after Cold Chisel’s classic Khe Sanh was used in rallies over the weekend.

Don’t they know Barnes’ wife was born in Thailand? Did they never listen to Don Walker’s superb lyrics, which would have made it plain that Khe Sanh – about a burned-out Vietnam veteran – was not exactly a call to arms for an ethnically pure Australia?

Of course not, but let’s face it, we aren’t exactly dealing with Mensa candidates here.

“The aussie spirit is what you stood for in so many” (sic), bemoaned the Australian Defence League in reply to Barnes. “You have just showed the world and every Australian that grew up loving your music that you are nothing but a political correct fold at your knees idiot.” (sic, sic, sic.)

In America, the Republican Party has made a pastime of co-opting the songs of its heartland rockers. Only a few weeks ago, Donald Trump tried to get away with using Neil Young’s Rockin’ In The Free World. Trump’s no Mensa candidate either, but as he likes to remind everybody on a regular basis, he’s really, really rich.

Back in 2000, Petty’s song I Won’t Back Down was used by George W Bush. Bush was the one to back down after the inevitable cease-and-desist, but not before his lawyers claimed that merely playing the song didn’t actually amount to any kind of endorsement – either by Petty of Bush, or vice versa.

Petty is a serial victim of this sort of thing: in 2011, Michele Bachmann used American Girl, which lasted one whole day on the hustings. Springsteen’s Born In The USA, about another Vietnam veteran suffering post-traumatic stress disorder, is surely the most misunderstood and misappropriated song of all time.

One suspects that the Republican Party is fully aware that it will never be granted the necessary permissions by liberals like Springsteen and Petty, and simply doesn’t care. Once a candidate has been introduced to a rabid flag-waving crowd to the strains of an American anthem, the point has been made, as much as it’s been missed.

As the LA Weekly puts it, the problem with being a conservative and co-opting rock and roll is being really, really square at heart, as well as having terrible taste in music. If only the late Johnny Ramone, an infamous punk conservative, had written some songs! Too bad that all da bruddas’ best tunes, including the brilliant Reagan-baiting Bonzo Goes To Bitburg, were written by Joey and Dee Dee.

The reason the likes of Springsteen, Petty, Young and Barnes find themselves vulnerable to being hijacked by right-wingers is because these heartland rockers all play no-frills music with big choruses that amplify the concerns of small-town, blue-collar citizens. All while wearing denim.

And it’s exactly those voters, far more than the music, that conservatives are really interested in co-opting. In the USA, it was the so-called Reagan Democrats. In Australia, it was former prime minister John Howard’s Battlers, those all-important aspirational voters of the largely white working class, who live on the fringes of our capital cities and in our regional centres.

These are the working-class men and women who feel they’ve been left behind: their jobs downsized, done better by robots or simply shipped offshore; veterans left to suffer after returning home; and facing an uncertain future after a lifetime of hard labour. As Jimmy Barnes sings in Khe Sahn: “I’ve travelled round the world from year to year. And each one found me aimless, one more year the worse for wear.”

The trick has been to convince these voters that what they really should be angry about are the trendy concerns of an inner-city elite – and anyone who could be a convenient scapegoat for their problems. Hence the unending culture war that – like all phoney wars – works best when it instils fear and loathing.

In Australia, Muslims and asylum seekers are only the easiest targets for that loathing. They’re also the best friends of a conservative movement that relies on an ageing and afraid white base. And the songs? Against their composers’ best intentions, suddenly they whisper: we’re just like you. We’re on your side. And we won’t back down.

First published in The Guardian, 22 July 2015

A message for men: don’t be a dickhead

The front page of The Age’s website last Thursday made for truly gruesome reading.

Once you got past the federal election coverage, and the Essendon supplements scandal, the headlines were overwhelmingly concerned with a series of brutal crimes against women, led by the appalling case of a parolee, Jason Dinsley, who had pleaded guilty to the murder and attempted rape of a Ballarat woman in April.

When the pathetic Dinsley couldn’t get it up, he decided to take his frustration out on his victim by bashing her with a cricket bat. Her four-year-old son was in the house at the time. He already had nearly 100 prior convictions by 2007, when he was imprisoned for six years for the violent rape and robbery of a 52-year-old woman.

Scroll down a little further and there, again, was the sad case of Johanna Martin, whom no one in the media seems to be capable of resisting calling by her better-known sex worker’s handle, Jazzy O, alongside pictures of her clad in a few well-placed Australian flags.

On trial for Martin’s murder was one of her clients, who also owed her $13,000. He claims she died accidentally in a “sex game”. But he didn’t report her death. Instead he pawned her jewellery and dumped her body in the street. His defence barrister argues a paltry $13,000 wouldn’t unduly trouble a woman allegedly worth $3 million.

Such contempt.

Later in the afternoon, up popped the case of Michael Pilgrim. In a minutely planned operation, Pilgrim had abducted another sex worker, of whom he had also been a client, and imprisoned her in a house in Gippsland, where he raped her daily in the deluded belief that she might develop Stockholm Syndrome and fall in love with him.

I was starting to feel a bit sick by then, and perhaps ill-advisedly I went back to the election news. What I found was a 24-hour cycle fixated on the federal opposition leader Tony Abbott – long pilloried for his archaic attitudes to women – stating that one of his female candidates might bring a little sex appeal to his campaign.

This was disputed by former Labor opposition leader Mark Latham, who thought Abbott must have had the beer goggles on, as she wasn’t even “that good a sort”. It showed, he said, that the would-be PM had “low standards”. Actually, both men are guilty of that. But not in the way Latham presumes.

To top all this off, we had a long-serving former Prime Minister who thought anyone who felt any of this was a bit, well, problematic ought to “get a life”. Well, excuse me John Howard, and anyone else, if you think I may be drawing too long a bow in all of this. But aren’t our leaders at least supposed to set a better example?

Victorian Police Commissioner Ken Lay thinks so. In an article for the Herald-Sun just three weeks ago, he said he had something to tell you: it’s all connected. And he challenged us: “When a woman is jeered, groped, bashed or raped I want you to consider the man who did it, and the culture that encouraged it,” he wrote.

He wanted prominent men, he said, to speak about this – both loudly and more often. It had to come from the men – male politicians, corporate and sporting leaders (they are all still mostly men) – to call out the sexism that underlay the violence. And if reducing a female politician’s credentials to her appearance isn’t sexism, what is?

“The casual groping, the sick sense of entitlement, the disrespect – all of it slowly erodes our attitudes towards women,” Lay wrote. “Bit by bit our standards are lowered until this kind of behaviour becomes a form of endorsement of violence towards women.”

What was that about standards again, Mr Latham?

Then Lay gave us the statistics. In the year up to March 2013, there were nearly 20,000 recorded offences of family violence in Victoria. And in the previous two financial years, the Women’s Domestic Violence Crisis Service received more than 50,000 calls to its crisis hotline in Victoria alone.

The aforementioned headlines were all in a single day. I haven’t mentioned the cases of Jill Meagher, Sarah Cafferkey, or how Julia Gillard’s gender and appearance was used ruthlessly by her less evolved enemies to destroy her political credibility – which is not to say she didn’t inflict many wounds upon herself.

Because this is not a left/right issue, and nor is it a women’s issue. As Lay said, it’s actually a men’s issue, and a justice issue. And calling it as a man doesn’t mean forfeiting one’s masculinity, or sense of humour, or sexuality. It just means not turning a blind eye to men behaving like dickheads.

Misogynists and nut jobs need to turn down the volume

Last Friday, I saw something that disturbed me greatly: a young man wearing what appeared to be a home-made T-shirt featuring a caricature of Prime Minister Julia Gillard. She had a bullet in her head.

That sort of thing, unfortunately, will be of little surprise to Gillard, who the day before had called out the “misogynists and nut jobs” on the internet, where calls for her assassination, both veiled and overt, proliferate.

They proliferate on talkback radio too. And it’s not just the callers. Alan Jones infamously suggested – on five occasions last year – that Gillard ought to be “put in a chaff bag” and dumped at sea.

Mysteriously, the broadcasting regulator, the Australian Communications and Media Authority, found in June that Jones’ comments did not incite violence or hatred – at least, not violence or hatred based on the PM’s gender. That was a relief, wasn’t it?

Let’s now look at the reality of last week’s events.

At the beginning of Gillard’s presser – the same one where she poured scorn on the nut jobs bent on her destruction – one of them strolled past security, entirely unchallenged, to personally deliver her a message on the dangers of “mind control”.

The day before that, a 52-year-old man avoided jail after threatening to kill Attorney-General Nicola Roxon and state Labor MP Jill Hennessy at a public function. He was highly agitated; both women were justifiably frightened.

Security is now being upgraded to the homes of MPs, as well as presumably being reviewed at Parliament House. We can be grateful that that’s all, for now. In the meantime, we desperately need to turn down the temperature of political debate.

Everyone, on both sides of politics, inside and outside the parliamentary chamber, needs to just stop for a moment. Step away from the computer, away from forums and comment threads and and Twitter. Don’t turn up your radio. Turn it off.

Go outside. Get a little air. For Pete’s sake, get a sense of perspective. That’s what’s lacking in Australia at the moment. The language is of catastrophe. Wrecking balls, python squeezes, crisis on our borders (mostly Kiwis coming by plane, as it happens).

True, those phrases come from the federal opposition. Tony Abbott has, in anyone’s estimation, been an opposition leader true to his pugilist past, vowing from the moment of his ascension to the job that opposition leaders were there to oppose.

He’s certainly a big reason for the relentless partisanship of our national debate. But he’s far from the only one, helped along as he is by the shock jocks and shit-stirrers and hate-mongers who have heaped vilification on our first female PM from day one.

Labor can play that game too, especially when it comes to tipping a bucket on themselves. If we’re to believe Wayne Swan, the only thing worse than a Tony Abbott-led Australia is one led by Kevin Rudd. The venom on all sides is astounding.

Gillard made an astute comment last week about Tea Party-style interventions perverting the tone of our politics, where even the hardest facts take a distant second place to a kind of rolling frenzy of vituperation.

She was right to observe that, with information bombarding all of us constantly, it’s becoming more and more difficult to parse that information effectively. And lies, repeated often enough, will always become truths to those predisposed to believe them.

Political debate, as we all know, has been mostly reduced  to sets of stock phrases, repeated ad nauseam to penetrate minds dulled, perhaps more than anything, by volume: not just of information, but the decibels with which the message is delivered.

It all reaches boiling point in the online environment, where the conspiracy theorists, the politically disenfranchised, and the manifestly unstable find themselves most at home.

Australia’s democracy has been distinguished by moderation. Bipartisanship is more common that frequently supposed, as both the Labor and Liberal parties have mostly tried to lay claim to the centre of political life. It’s an important factor in our stability.

Compare that to the current direction of US politics, where fear seems to be the guiding principle, and even the mention of gun control by a candidate from either major party is considered tantamount to political suicide, if not worse.

We can thank John Howard for delivering some of the tightest firearms restrictions in the developed world in the wake of the Port Arthur massacre in 1996. Unfortunately, no one can legislate for sanity.

It will only take one aggrieved soul with an axe to grind and sufficiently deluded conviction in his righteousness to change the way politics in this country is conducted forever. Let’s all take a deep breath, and hope it never comes to that.

First published in The Age, 28 August 2012

You can’t say no forever

IN case you missed it, the carbon tax bills were passed by the House of Representatives yesterday. I’m pleased to report the sun came up this morning. I presume it will set again tonight and in spite of the nation’s dilemma, the world will most likely move on.

Julia Gillard and her minority government have a lot of problems and a lot of faults, but they’re correct when she says they’re on the right side of history here (or, more accurately, that Tony Abbott is on the fag end of it). It’s just a shame it took so long to get to this point, and that the debate over this issue in particular has exacted such a shocking toll on rational and civilised political discourse – not that things were exactly tea and biscuits inside or outside the parliamentary chamber when John Howard was in charge, mind you.

I am, in some ways, almost a cartoon stereotype of the lapsed Labor voter: having voted with not a little optimism, goodwill and hope for Kevin Rudd in 2007, my faith collapsed after his abandonment of the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme in early 2010. It was bad enough that the legislation was so utterly compromised in its desperation to appease big polluters that it offered virtually no incentive to change their practices at all. The fact that Rudd was by then already running scared of a craven chancer like Abbott – who has already supported all possible positions on this issue depending on which way the political wind was blowing – only made it more galling.

For me, Abbott’s ascent – his relentless cynicism, his willingness to all but sell his arse for power that would be singularly dangerous in his hands – has made Australian politics all but unbearable. Taking his cues from the US Tea Party Republicans, Abbott’s tactics since taking on the opposition leadership, almost by default, have been simple and brutally effective: oppose everything.

Unfortunately, the times suit him. Anne Summers, in her Monthly profile on Andrew Bolt, notes that to succeed in the media today, you need to create controversy: politics is less about a conflict of ideas than an increasingly shrill, rolling conflict of opinion. I’ve already written that, in this environment, expertise counts for nothing in the face of a howling mob – the kind that stormed the parliamentary gallery yesterday screaming that “democracy is dead”.

Abbott, an old rugby prop forward, is perfect to lead a mob. It’s the extreme language that he uses – most recently, yesterday’s “pledge in blood” to repeal the carbon tax if and when he takes office. It’s this sort of thing that gets him into trouble sometimes, such as when he stood in front of placards demonising Julia Gillard as a witch (and worse) at an earlier rally against the tax. I doubt it would even have occurred to him, until it was pointed out, that implicitly condoning such behaviour was less than prime ministerial; that it was his own fitness to govern that would be called into question.

But what’s Abbott to do now? You can’t say no forever, as the Go-Betweens once said. One wonders if this pledge in blood is a “carefully scripted remark”, or just part of the cut and thrust and bloody gore of politics, Abbott’s way. The business community at least now knows what it’s getting, and the smarter elements of it have been preparing accordingly for some time.

This is an issue that isn’t going to just go away. Everyone, including a large percentage of the same business community, knows Abbott’s so-called “direct action” policy to mitigate against climate change is a joke and at any rate, the legal obstacles against repealing yesterday’s legislation are formidable.

Former Labor opposition leader Kim Beazley never got the chance to keep his promise to roll back the GST. Abbott may be luckier than Beazley, but he is creating an almighty rod for his own back should he take office. If his pledge in blood turn out to have been made with his fingers crossed behind his back, the mob he has proved so adept at whipping up will surely turn on him.

All about folksonomics: the intellectual recession we didn’t have to have

A week ago, a piece appeared in the Life & Style section of Fairfax’s online mastheads which depressingly illustrated the toxic spread of disinformation through once credible news outlets. Written by a freelancer, Marj Lefroy, it purported to illustrate “Vaccination’s vexed link to autism“, opening with the provocative line “for many parents, vaccinations are this century’s abortion debate” (no, I’m not aware of the abortion debate being magically resolved last century either, but let’s leave that for now).

Claiming to speak on behalf of “the voices of concerned parents and carers”, she referred to a case in the US where the federal government had conceded that vaccines had “aggravated a young girl’s mitochondrial disorder to the point that she developed autism”, with the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program subsequently paying out $1.5 million upfront to the girl’s family, in addition to ongoing reimbursement of $500,000 pa.

“There are things we can and must do,” opines Ms Lefroy in conclusion, a nicely vague way of advising readers not to vaccinate their kids. “We must have the courage and maturity to listen to everyone, including the mothers and fathers dealing with the unacceptable, potentially avoidable consequences. They’re the canaries in the coal mine, and the real reason why this case is not closed. It’s just that science, likes the law, takes a while to catch up.”

The comments section predictably exploded. “Of course, the decision whether or not to accept the current system of vaccination is not easy,” went one of the less strident replies. “I dread the day when I will need to make this decision about my child’s health.”

You. Are. Freaking. Kidding. Me.

Yesterday, the column was mercifully answered by a Sydney GP, Dr James Best, who also happens to have an autistic child. From where he sits, the “debate” about vaccination isn’t as hotly contested as Ms Lefroy claims: perhaps one in 100 of his patients in his paediatric practice refuse to follow the standard immunisation schedule. Yet that one in 100 still causes a real headache: over the past 18 months, he writes, he has diagnosed around 30 cases of whooping cough; in more affluent areas of eastern Sydney and the north coast of NSW, where vaccination scares have taken hold, rates of the diagnosis are even higher and climbing.

Dr Best also debunks Ms Lefroy’s selective use of evidence to prosecute her case. In regards to the US government payout to one apparent victim above, for example, he writes:

“Ms Lefroy then brings up the case of a young girl with a rare genetic mitochondrial disorder who received a substantial payout under the US National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program when she developed an encephalopathy with ‘features of autism’—not ‘autism’ as Ms Lefroy claims—after receiving several vaccines. (Encephalopathy is an extremely rare but recognised side effect of some vaccines. That’s why the US government didn’t contest the case.)

“What she doesn’t mention was that this case was originally part of the much larger Omnibus Autism trial, a class action representing almost 5000—yes 5000—cases brought by families who claimed their child had developed autism from vaccines. And what happened to the other 5000 or so cases? After hearing months of testimony and reviewing mountains of evidence on the test claims, the independent Special Masters of the Vaccine Court dismissed them; in fact they were scathing in their judgements of the lawyers who pursued the action based on such flimsy evidence. ‘Not even close’, was one judgement.”

The comments section exploded again. “Your article is great and I totally understand where you are going with it,” says “hmmm” from Sydney. Perplexingly, she then goes on: “I am going to be an ‘older’ mother and one thing is for sure – I DON’T TRUST vaccinations. It is about time this debate gets finalised and some serious research is done without hiding behind the curtain of the government or any other governing body. As far as being a busy GP – I don’t trust them either.”

I’m sure Dr Best is thankful that she “totally understands” where he is going. Then there’s pure gibberish like this:

“As a non-parent,and dislike doctors with an intensity,the fact this man and and being a father does the complete opposite to me when he thinks he is well qualified.And then the torrent of being in a middle class practice.Then a court specifically for vaccines,as it reads as article!Doesn’t make you think, does it!?Seeing most of the anti-vaccination activists are women and not doctors,there is some degree of insisted superiority in this combination of the opponents of said women and non medical degrees.The real answer to the presentation by this doctor would be a anti-vaccination father who won’t have a bar of going to a doctor if he can avoid it,and with sound reasoning,whereas I can find,if I want to a number of experts who have been associated with being in normal courts as experts and in some instances winning the case completely..So ,lets get a number of things clear about this article.The intention of it is to show the sparsity of the opponents of vaccination in terms of degrees,parenthood wisdom ,by a means that disallows a useful type of response in a number of words and characters.Thus the elitist nose of the profession does the attack job over and over again,and why,when simple the problem of autism is not their right either to play god,with children whose manifestation of a disease,as a disease,may have complications that the doctor as parent maybe only able to see.Unless their is some fiesty parent or two ready to take on the bloody profession for the sake of their kid’s health and others.Is the parent the real skilled!”

If you could get through that, congratulations. I presume some lackey at Fairfax does have to filter this guff, lest they not be left open to potential defamation suits, but obviously beyond that there’s not a whole lot of moderating going on. Newsrooms, driven by the need for content and a 24-hour cycle, are busy places. Who on earth has the time?

Nonetheless, the drivel above does actually contain the nub of what I want to address here: the persistent denigration and dismissal of expertise in online news environments especially, and the subsequent rise in publication of mischievous disinformation (in the name, presumably, of free speech and fostering debate).

This is not a fashionable view. Bernard Keane, I’m sure, would be all over me about who gets to decide what constitutes mischievous disinformation and what is accurate, balanced and truthful. Fair enough. But when the culture of blogging and citizen journalism – where old hierarchies of knowledge have been flattened – infiltrates previously esteemed mastheads at the expense of reasonable public health objectives, I think we might have a problem.

In his book Blogs, Wikipedia, Second Life And Beyond, academic Axel Bruns characterises these new public spaces for debate as “folksonomies”. The rise of what he calls “folk intelligence” raises questions of where this leaves the traditional gatekeepers of knowledge: the experts in specific fields of information. In this new environment, the traditional pathways of original research and peer-reviewed publication may be dismissed; the wisdom of the online community is king.

Actually, Bruns’ argument is a bit more subtle than that. “If there is a conflict between ‘experts’ and ‘folks’ on the pages of the Wikipedia, then, it is not one which can be described simply as pitting hierarchy against anarchy, control of knowledge systems against freedom of speech (however far off the mark that speech may be in terms of representing existing knowledge),” he writes. “[R]ather, it is a struggle between two different systems of representing knowledge: one, the expert paradigm, which ultimately and ideally aims to develop well-behaved, universally accepted and internally consistent understandings of the world, and two, the folksonomic paradigm, which allows for multiplicity, conflicts of interpretation, and the existence of a number of alternative representations of extant knowledge which are accepted only by a subset of the entire community (but which nonetheless are based on an interpretation of actual evidence).”

You only have to look at the climate change debate to see what Bruns’ folksonomic paradigm has wrought on the Australian mediocracy, not to mention two former opposition leaders and (soon to be) two ex-prime ministers. The steady creep of talkback radio culture into print media – where comments equals hits equals advertising revenue – has helped make superstars of Andrew Bolt and Miranda Devine, skilled rousers of rabbles whose reach and influence (measured recently by The Power Index) stands in inverse proportion to their knowledge of what they’re talking about, at least when it comes to global warming.

But hey, it’s all about balance, as The Australian screeched a couple of weekends ago, in response to Robert Manne’s Quarterly Essay. Ninety-nine percent of the world’s actual climate scientists might think we’re going to hell in a handbasket, but that doesn’t mean acres of print shouldn’t be given over to anyone who says it’s all a great big lefty conspiracy involving NASA, the CSIRO, the EU and John Howard. News Ltd (soon to be News Australia, as leaked to Crikey yesterday) purports to represent Middle Australia. We love your opinion, we value it. Oh, and will you please fill out our online survey?

We place our faith in the engineers that design our bridges, and the cars we drive over them; we worship the geeks who invent our Macbooks and iPads, oblivious to the scientific principles which have to be tested, repeated and then applied to the technology that makes them possible. And until recently, we trusted the doctor who jabbed us as kids with a biological synthetic of polio, so that our immune systems would learn to recognise and destroy it, allowing us to live free of the fear of paralysis or worse.

So thanks, Ms Lefroy, for your considered contribution to the immunisation debate. Should rates of measles, whooping cough and poliomyelitis rise in the near future, at least you’ll be able to say you just wanted to save the children from autism. And thanks, too, to Fairfax for giving her a good run. At the risk of spoiling this rant in the last paragraph by falling foul of Godwin’s law, I expect that a major news masthead in Australia will soon be giving space to holocaust deniers and various 9/11 whackjobs. All in the name of balanced debate.

All they need to do is give a crank a platform. Oh, wait…