I’ve just had an adventure in televisual democracy.
As part of “a cracking line up”, last night’s (final) episode of the ABC’s Q&A featured panelist Tom Switzer. Ostensibly an expert — of some kind — I’d never heard of him. I also only caught the last 10 minutes or so, during which the panel discussed some of the issues arising out of the HoWARd Gub’mint’s refugee policy. Nonetheless, Tom’s responses to some questions posed by a former
terrorist prison inmate were, I think, quite superb. According to Tom, critics of HoWARd’s policies could be safely dismissed as “metropolitan sophisticates”; living in a city and being sophisticated are obviously Very Bad Things in Tom’s Bumper Book of Political Wisdom. Sadly, were anyone to take Tom seriously, they couldn’t take him seriously. At least, not by Tom’s rather strange logic.
But who is Tom?
Born in 1971, Tom is an Old Boy from St. Aloysius’ College, a Catholic school in Sydney. Other Old Boys include Tory politicians Tony Abbott, Nick Greiner and Joe Hockey, and a range of Generals, Judges, Magistrates, Academics, Businessmen, Senior Clergy, Actors, Artists, Journalists, Scientists, Doctors and Dentists. Originally established by the Jesuits in 1879, and offerings its 1,200 or so students Harbour views, the College is the oldest of the six schools which make up the Combined Associated Schools (CAS) of New South Wales.
In other words, Tom attended an elite private school in the heart of Australia’s largest city.
Nevertheless, St Aloysius’ does occasionally require — and no doubt deserves — a little Christian charity. In a paper published by the Australia Institute (Deb Wilkinson, Richard Denniss and Andrew Macintosh, ‘The Accountability of Private Schools to Public Values’, August 2004 [PDF]), school authorities are quoted as follows: “While tuition fees cover a major portion of a boy’s education at St Aloysius’ College, fees do not and cannot provide all the funds we need to undertake building projects and new major capital works. The Foundation Building Fund is vital for the provision of new buildings and resources”. In fact, management complains, “There is a mistaken perception in the community that St Aloysius’ College has adequate funds on which to draw. The reality is that without strong and active support of the College Family, the College would not have the financial capacity to complete many major projects that enhance the education of our boys.” The Australia Institute comments: “In order to prompt parents to give generously relative to their ‘capacity to do so’ [a] table is provided. It is interesting to note the explicit assumption that all parents are in the top marginal tax bracket which, prior to 1 July 2004, meant that they had incomes in excess of $62, 501.73…”
On the social ambiance of the North Shore, Mike Carlton (What a truly ghastly gaffe, The Sydney Morning Herald, August 28, 2004) writes:
Sydney’s North Shore is another country. Unless you have grown up in its leafy purlieus of eucalypts and liquidambars towering over manicured lawns and stockbroker Tudor executive residences, you cannot begin to comprehend its arcane tribal hierarchies and social mores.
Outsiders, for example, think the North Shore begins at Kirribilli and runs all the way to Hornsby. It does not. The starting line is the north side of Boundary Street, Roseville. (The south side, unfortunately, is in plebian Chatswood). The finishing line is at Pearce’s Corner, Wahroonga, where the Pacific Highway meets Pennant Hills Road, and not a metre beyond, however much local real estate agents pretend otherwise to unsuspecting arrivistes.
North Shore blue bloods know instinctively that the better address lies to the east of the railway line, not the west. Ku-ring-gai Avenue is considered the best street in Turramurra – its Federation mansions would be the envy of the rest of Sydney – but, my dears, it is not quite Water Street, Wahroonga, nor Hastings Road, Warrawee.
And if you have to ask whether it is better to send your son to Knox Grammar or Barker College, your daughter to Pymble Ladies’ College or Abbotsleigh, then you have no business applying to any of them. Catholic schools have been acceptable since about 1960, but only the Jesuits of St Ignatius, Riverview, or St Aloysius…
So much for the primary and secondary schooling experience of this poor simple boy from the country. Naturally enough, upon completing his studies at St Aloysius’, Tom proceeded with most of his peers to the University of Sydney. A well-trained boy, Tom obtained First Class Honours in 1994, and was able keep the wolf from his door with a cadetship at the corporate-funded thinktank the American Enterprise Institute. His three years working for The Man (1995–1998) was remarked upon when, in 2008, John HoWARd received the ‘Irving Kristol Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Excellence’, and Tom’s gushing praise was quoted by the AEI: “[Howard] presided over the longest economic boom since the gold rushes of the nineteenth century”.
Upon leaving the AEI, the battler from Struggle Street got a gig back in Australia at the Australian Financial Review; one of his few memorable works while there was a charming piece called ‘With friends like the Palestinians, who needs enemies?’ (December 23, 1998). The Palestinians, Tom is clear — and despite the abundant opportunities provided them by the generous Israeli state — “remain vicious thugs”. (See ‘Kazak v John Fairfax Publications Limited  NSWADT 77’ for further details.)
Leaving the AFR in 2001, Tom became the opinion pages editor at Murdoch’s The Australian. At which point, I’ll allow someone else to pick up the story:
Switzer joined Murdoch’s flagship paper just a month after 9/11. As he tells it, Rupert’s hacks were all calling each other “comrade” when he arrived, but he soon put a stop to that nonsense. Janet Albrechtsen became his most ardent devotee:
IT is only a slight exaggeration to say opinion writing in the Australian press has two eras: BT and AT. Before Tom. And after Tom…
The period AT sees this page, and the public conversation, transformed. I would say that, of course. Switzer brought me on board soon after his arrival.
John HoWARd praised Switzer for giving “an authentic voice to the Right in the culture debates”. But don’t get the idea that he was another unbalanced neocon! Howard insists Switzer’s promotion of voices like Mark Steyn and Christopher Hitchens was “not to the detriment of others”. As Janet explains it:
Switzer strove for balance. As he wrote in The Australian back in 2005, between July 2002 and March 2003, while debate about Iraq raged, this page reflected the controversy by publishing 45 dovish pieces and 47 hawkish pieces. After Saddam Hussein’s downfall, 107 columns were critical of the US-led occupation while 114 were supportive. You don’t get more balanced than that.
In other words, there were more hawkish pieces than dovish ones, and more pro-occupation articles than critical ones. And that’s despite the fact that the Iraq quagmire has been, as Switzer himself once conceded, a “misbegotten venture” championed by “misguided idealists”.
If Tom had a sense of humour, that would be funny. He doesn’t, and it’s not. As Chomsky has commented (in reference to the earlier imperial adventure in Vietnam): “There’s a spectrum of opinion. The spectrum is between what I call doves and hawks. Hawks are ones who say it was a noble cause and we should have won and if we hadn’t been stabbed in the back, and so on, we would have won. Doves are the ones who say it was a noble cause and we should have won but it was costing us too much and it probably wasn’t worth it. So, let’s do better next time. That’s the doves. And that’s not an exaggeration. I’ll spare you quotes.” Which is, of course, Chomsky’s prerogative. I, on the other hand, refer to Andrew West (‘A Right-Wing Conspiracy’, newmatilda.com, July 19, 2006), who writes: “The Australian‘s op-ed page, run by former American Enterprise Institute (AEI) staffer Tom Switzer, offers a frequent pulpit to former HoWARd Government staffer Kevin Donnelly to promote free market policies in education. Switzer himself wrote glowingly in the AEI journal last year about HoWARd, calling him the ‘antipodal offspring of his hero Ronald Reagan’.”
And so on and so forth.
Apart from winning the admiration of Janet Albrechtsen, as opinion pages editor Tom no doubt bravely battled penury and obscurity — assisted, one assumes, by both a fat salary and the approval of The Boss. Alas, it wasn’t to last, and after a mere seven years Tom left, and Joe Six-Pack became Opposition Leader Brendan Nelson’s political adviser. Unfortunately for Tom, and despite being cautioned by his then-colleagues, Nelson soon got the arse, and the horny-handed son of toil is now being forced to look for other ideological masters to serve. Or as D.D. McNicoll puts it:
[Switzer] brushed aside the concerns voiced by some of his newspaper colleagues, assuring them that if Nelson were replaced by Malcolm Turnbull, he would still have a job. After all, he got on well with Turnbull. And Switzer’s wife, Sarah Stock, was once Turnbull’s press secretary. But with Nelson on the backbench and Turnbull in the box seat, Switzer has found himself without a job in the Opposition Leader’s office. Scuttlebutt in the corridors of Parliament House suggests he may be joining one of the high-profile, privately funded think tanks such as the Lowy or Sydney institutes.
Which would make perfect sense. Insofar as his performance on Q&A is concerned, however, both the Lowy and Sydney Institutes may be looking for a bit more bang for their buck. On refugees [46:30 — 48:00], Tom opined:
[The ‘border protection policy’] showed once and for all that Australia would not be a soft touch [for] people smugglers. The policy works, and it was so popular in fact that it has been embraced by a lot of countries throughout Western Europe. That’s not to say there are problems with the system, but there comes a time when you do have to stand up against people-smuggling… The broad cross-section of the Australian people — maybe not the metropolitan sophisticates who live in inner-Sydney city — supported it… In terms of the government policy in the first place, it’s certainly defensible.
On the matter of the sinking of the SIEVX,
after expressing his obviously heartfelt anguish over the loss of 350 lives, Tom was of the opinion that the malcontents on board sabotaged their own vessel [54:30…]:
Q. How did that boat sink David? [David Marr: We don’t know.] I understand that it was originally sabotaged by the people on the boat!
Hmmm. Why did SIEVX sink?
This is a key question at the heart of the SIEVX issue.
A number of theories have been put forward by commentators. Some believe that the sinking was the inevitable result of a greedy people smuggler grossly overloading a leaking hulk by more than twice its load limit in order to ruthlessly maximise profits. Others theorize that the boat was deliberately sabotaged as a deterrent to halt the people smuggling trade from Indonesia to Australia.
It can be difficult to imagine any Australian complicity in such a tragedy. But it is important to note that at the time of the sinking Australia, with the assistance of special units of Indonesian police, was involved in a covert disruption program targetting people smugglers operating inside Indonesia. Disruption tactics included establishing ‘sting’ shipping companies in strategic locations and selling passage to asylum seekers on phoney voyages to Ashmore Reef & Christmas Island and keeping their money so they could not buy places on other boats.
One informant connected with the disruption program boasted to Channel 9 reporter, Ross Coulthart that he had arranged for Indonesian locals on four or five occasions to scuttle boats packed with asylum seekers. He claimed that as the boats were sunk close to land so everyone got off safely, there was no cause for concern!
To date no direct link has been established between the disruption program and the sinking of SIEVX. However, this possibility cannot be ruled out, given that SIEVX sunk at the height of this program and only a week after the People Smuggling Taskforce discussed ‘beefing up’ disruption.
The Senate is so concerned about this possibility that it has passed three resolutions calling for the government to set up an independent judicial inquiry into the people smuggling disruption program in Indonesia and the sinking of SIEVX.
To find out more about the disruption program see the sources listed in our SIEVX Reading Guide.
146 children, 142 women and 65 men died in the sinking of the SIEVX.
Tom lives with his wife Sarah in northern Sydney.