Seven-hundred people crammed into the Melbourne City Conference Centre on February 8 to hear radical journalist and film-maker John Pilger's call for mass action against the invasion of Iraq — "the paramount war crime against humanity from which all other war crimes follow".
Pilger's latest book, Freedom Next Time, was released in mid-2006. A review of it in the June 3 British Guardian argued that "Pilger is surely the most outstanding journalist in the world today" and described the book as an "indispensable corrective to the litany of disinformation we are fed by the media".
Dozens of others were turned away at the doors of the sold-out Melbourne meeting, which was organised by Green Left Weekly and Readings Bookshop.
"It is always gratifying to return to Australia and meet with so many people who are interested in real discussion", Pilger told the meeting before launching a passionate appeal for Australians to take action against the crimes currently being committed by the Australian government in their name.
Pilger's address emphasised the difficult struggle to reach out to people "outside the bubble", the "silent majority" of privileged Australians who see themselves as separate and different to the victims of war and aggression. "I'm talking about people who don't identify with the suffering of the people of Iraq or Palestine", he explained, "or with Muslims around the world, including here in Australia, who are the primary victims of terrorism, or Aboriginal people who continue to suffer under invasion".
He referred to a recent editorial in the Brisbane Courier Mail that grudgingly conceded that "large numbers of Australians appear not to be indifferent" to the case of Guantanamo detainee David Hicks, as evidence that perhaps outrage about the crimes flowing from the Iraq war is "filtering through to people outside the bubble". "John Howard is getting very worried about this", he added.
He spoke warmly of former cricket captain Ian Chappell's recent refusal to share a commentary box at the Ashes cricket tournament with Howard because of his views on the PM's treatment of asylum seekers. "He's just a decent person and he thought Howard was being indecent", he said.
He urged "direct action", particularly against Australia's role in the invasion of Iraq, of the type that forced the government to release children from immigration detention and to send peace-keeping troops to East Timor. "Voting for [Labor leader] Kevin Rudd is not action", he said. He particularly urged action against the forthcoming visit of US Vice-President Dick Cheney, who will officially thank Howard for the Australian government's support during the 2003 US invasion of Iraq.
"Dick Cheney is a major war criminal", he said, "and I mean that quite literally" — referring to the estimates of some 655,000 Iraqi deaths since the US invasion and the insistence of the "dangerous cabal" around Cheney on war "as a first resort" in Iran. "Every Australian should be outraged about this man coming here."
Pilger said people should not be put off taking action because their participation in mass demonstrations against the invasion in 2003 didn't stop the war then. "It's just going to take more than that", he said.
Asked whether he thought the US and Israel were deliberately fostering civil war between supporters of Hamas and Fatah in Palestine Pilger answered with a simple "Yes, I do". "The Palestinians made the fatal mistake of voting in the 'wrong' government last year — from the perspective of the US and Israel", he explained. "Now the international media, to their shame, are failing to report a key ideological shift in that party, Hamas — the recognition of the sovereignty of Israel." He said even the ABC persisted in portraying Hamas as demanding that Israel be "thrown into the sea". "That is just ridiculous", he said.
One audience member challenged Pilger to provide a solution to the Iraq impasse, claiming that the withdrawal of Australian troops would do nothing to relieve the chaos. Pilger explained: "The US and its allies including Australia have no right to be there. They caused the mayhem ... to say that the Iraqis can't handle their own affairs is just disingenuous. The first step is to get out and the second is to pay real reparations — starting with the millions that people like Cheney, with his Haliburton shareholding of [US]$242,000 now worth many millions, have made out of the war."
John Coleman reports from Sydney that Pilger addressed some 400 people at the headquarters of the NSW Teachers Federation on February 7. The meeting was organised by GLW and Gleebooks. Pilger spoke on a range of topics from the Iraq war, to David Hicks, to the Howard government's industrial relations legislation.
He also spoke about the revival in indigenous rights movements, both in Australia and overseas. He highlighted the victory of the campaign against the impunity of Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley, who has now been charged over the November 2004 death of Palm Island resident Mulrunji. Pilger also talked about Bolivia's powerful indigenous movement, and the continuing fight for justice over the 2004 death in custody of young Aboriginal man TJ Hickey in Redfern.