Raising Hell: Issue 49: Objection, My Learned Friends
"During peace time a scientist belongs to the World, but during war time he belongs to his country." - Fritz Haber, German chemist, Nobel prize winner and pioneer of chemical warfare.
You might say South Australia’s anti-vaxxers had been looking forward to AWFL player Deni Varnhagen’s challenge to the state’s vaccine mandate in the same way evangelists dream of the rapture. It was their day in court, that moment when people who had busy refining their own personal legal arguments against vaccine mandates — and the entire handling of the pandemic — would take their arguments to a Supreme Court Justice who, they believed, would inevitably tear the whole the whole thing down.
Painting the proceedings in such terms may seem dramatic, but that was how those who gathered outside the court building talked about the case in the snippets I heard. All their hopes had been vested in Deni Varnhagen, who was in every way a model litigant. The Crows midfielder was a professional footballer — which by default made her a titan in Australian culture. She was young, fit, tall, conventionally good looking and a working nurse who claimed to have lost her shifts because she refused vaccination. As her lawyers told the court in their opening remarks, she was now forced to work as a casual labourer.
Setting aside the inherent classism with which this fact was established — what’s wrong with physical work, exactly? — it was a fallen angel trope tailor made to grab headlines. On her first day in court Varnhagen dressed in white and sat quietly next to her legal team who promised Justice Judy Hughes their attempt to examine South Australia’s Chief Health Officer, Nicola Spurrier, was not an effort to “grandstand” or convene their own Royal Commission. Outside court, however, the reverse was true. Those who had gathered to support Varnhagen — who applauded her arrival at court in the mornings and heckled Spurrier as she was forced to run the gauntlet under police guard to a waiting car — were explicitly calling for the Chief Medical Officer to be prosecuted and were bitterly disappointed when she escaped the cross.
Amongst this drama was a smaller scene that largely went uncovered as neither Professor Nicholai Petrovksy or SAHMRI executive director Professor Steve Wessenlingh had enough of a profile to warrant a write up in the national press.
Pervovksy, the anti-vaxxers favourite vaccine scientist (check here for background), had been put up by Vernhagen’s legal team as their star witness. Petrovsky — who seemed to genuinely enjoy the experience as he played to the gallery and treated the moment like any one of his previous podcast appearances — was supposed to have offered an alternative reading of the current state of vaccine science in order to introduce doubt about how authorities had handled the emergency situation. But within the first 45 minutes of giving evidence he was shown to be deeply conflicted. He had provided a 39 page report to the court outlining his spin on the efficacy and effectiveness of vaccines, but in doing so he hadn’t bothered to declare, for instance, that he had been forced onto personal leave after he refused to take an approved vaccine by his employees. Asked directly about whether he had a personal or a financial interest in the outcome of the case — owing to his development of a vaccine that he planned to market to developing world countries — Petrovsky denied the suggestion saying his company “had run at a financial loss for the last 18 or 19 years” as proof money was no motivation.
Wessenlingh, on the other hand, was different. Unlike Petrovsky, he was boring in the sense that he was a competent, reasonable and pragmatic working scientist who behaved exactly as expected. He had been asked by the court to provide his own report on the state of vaccine science, one that contradicted Petrovsky, and in doing so Wessenlingh made the mistake that all reasonable people make when dealing with the anti-vax movement.
The thing about anti-vaxxers is that their demand for detail is bottomless. It is precisely this quality that makes them equal parts boring and frustrating as a social movement. Despite what people tend to think, anti-vaxxers usually know quite a bit about vaccine science. The difference is that unlike a working scientist, they dive into this detail to probe for doubt. Any gap in information, no matter how innocent, is interpreted as a fatal flaw.
Most people, when confronted with this situation, may go through the process of humouring this demand for a while, but will usually quit when they recognise the situation for the time-suck it is. Unless that person is willing to drill down into the deepest spreadsheet and the finest granular detail, the anti-vaxers will read any attempt to cut and run as a great victory.
Part of what made Varnhagen’s case so curious was the way it unleashed this very quality on the court system. After Petrovsky had offered up his take on the vaccine science to the court, Wessenlingh had been asked by Justice Hughes to produce his own report. In doing so he had done enough to answer the court’s questions, but because he didn’t dive deep into the raw data it was suggest under cross examination that Wessenlingh was making claims without evidence. Varnhagen’s legal team suggested he had “outsourced” the report and claimed he simply hadn’t done the job by involving a Phd Postdoc in its complication. As I overheard a woman in the public gallery say aloud to another, in the mind of the anti-vaxxers this was a fatal error. Petrovsky had poured over this information himself and to her, this made his opinions truer.
It is highly unlikely a judge will agree which means it’s not clear whether the whole matter will amount to much more than a strange spectacle. In asking for judicial review, Justice Hughes sole role is to decide whether officials had the power to make the decisions they did. The facts of what happened are largely irrelevant. If the court upholds their decision because they did have the authority and throws out the application, it may well be the anti-vaxxers are left waiting for a reckoning that never arrives.
For the Fortnight: March 30 to April 12
Where I recap what I’ve been doing this last fortnight so you know I’m not just using your money to stimulate the local economy …
So much for time off. Last week was unexpectedly full in its own way and I haven’t been able to get around to doing all the things I was supposed to as I tie off my other obligations. Here’s a smattering of what I’ve been working on:
‘‘Fireproof Australia: who are the radical Extinction Rebellion splinter group?” (The Guardian, 10 April 2022).
“Rio Tinto investors vote against financial statements in climate protest” (The Guardian, 9 April 2022).
“Jewish Museum to lead investigation into claim Wollongong identity collaborated with Nazis” (The Guardian, 1 April 2022).
“Water isn’t endless’: the controversial plan to extend irrigated agriculture in NT’s tropical savannah”(The Guardian, 11 April 2022).
“What I Wish I’d Know About: Second Books” (Kill Your Darlings, 8 April 2022).
I also wrote several reports on the trial of Deni Varnhagen, who is challenging South Australia’s vaccine laws for AAP which have been syndicated across the country. It’s just-the-facts reporting produced over three days so I’m not going to dig out each of them here.
Cracking COVIDSafe - An examination of the machine that made the COVIDSafe app, a piece of software made by people who wanted to hack the pandemic (complete).
Laramba’s Water - Laramba is a remote Indigenous Community in the Northern Territory which has been drinking uranium-contaminated water since 2008. We tried to find out what why (on-going).
‘High levels of uranium in drinking water of NT community’ (NITV, 31 July 2020).
‘Company remains shtum on plans to filter Laramba's contaminated water supply’ (NITV, 21 October 2020).
‘‘It makes us sick’: remote NT community wants answers about uranium in its water supply’ (The Guardian, 18 October 2021).
You Hate To See It
A dyspeptic, snark-ridden and highly ironic round-up of the news from our shared hellscape…
Crossing The Line
The biggest story on the planet this last fortnight was not the latest IPCC report on climate or the war in Ukraine, but rather the spectacle of one multi-millionaire Scientologist slapping another multi-millionaire on stage at the Oscars. Will Smith may have delivered the slap that sparked a thousand op-eds but it was Jay-Z who crossed the picket line with his Oscar’s after party. The billionaire rapper held his Gold Party at the Chauteau Marmont, a famed hotel which, at the start of the pandemic laid off its employees without paying severance or health insurance before reports of sexual misconduct and racial discrimination followed. Despite the boycott that has been in effect since — and efforts by local union reps for Jay Z to move his party elsewhere — he was joined by Timothée Chalamet, Questlove, Janelle Monáe, Saweetie, Emily Ratajkowski, Daniel Kaluuya, Kim Kardashian, Michael B. Jordan, Mindy Kaling, Tiffany Haddish, Tyler Perry, Kodi Smit-McPhee, and Zoe Kravitz for a night of heavy drinking in opulent finery.
When is a cargo of Russian diesel not a cargo of Russian diesel, Bloomberg media asks in something of a contemporary zen koan. Well, as it happens, Shell, one of the world’s oil companies, has an answer: it’s technically no longer Russian-origin diesel when you blend. Yes, Russian oil might be funding a murdered and genocidal war of attribution in Ukraine, but when 50.01% of he mix comes from somewhere else, you don’t need to worry about pesky sanctions or loose morals. Take a little sweet Texas Crude or perhaps that certified Saudi Black Gold, blend it together and voila! You have a chemical cocktail workaround that also helps cook the planet.
A Rising Tide
Speaking of oil companies and climate change, we turn to Australia now where heavy rainfall in Sydney recently caused a pump failure at the country’s largest fuel import terminal. As a petrol residue pit overflowed, it mixed with floodwater that inundated the suburb of Kurnell, washing over streets and ending up in the drinking water supply.
Smells Like Money
The IPCC may have put out their latest report which points the finger at those responsible for not acting on climate change and actually a suggests how we should be dealing with it, but according to the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association, it actually called for — wait for it — more gas! The industry’s white-is-black view of the world comes amid a chorus of champagne corks popping in board rooms of coal miners who are making bank off the war in Ukraine with exports forecast to smash $100b a year record.
So Cool. So Good.
But, you know, it’s all cool and good when Bondi beach is submerged beneath water that laps at the cars parked nearby.
Where we recognise and celebrate the true stupidity of the rich, powerful and influential…
It was the flurry of appointments to boards and public positions that let you know the election was coming. By some counts more than 30 ex-Coalition MPs, staffers and donors were dropped into key positions on courts, tribunals and other public bodies over the last six months. This sort of stacking of key institutions is entirely to be expected from a party importing the tactics of US Republicans, but there was one figure in particular who caught the eye of Raising Hell’s elite satire unit: Andrew McConville.
McConville’s recent appointment as the new head of the Murray Darling Basin Authority was a curious appointment for the outgoing CEO of APPEA but then who are we do judge? We expect McConville will feel right at home having now pivoted from the extractive industry’s of the past to overseeing a resource that will inevitably become an extractive industry of the future (if it’s not already): water.
Good Reads, Good Times
To share the love, here are some of the best or more interesting reads from the last fortnight…
If there was anything I enjoyed this fortnight, it was the following image of an American soldier trying on the crown of the Holy Roman Empire in 1945.
Before You Go (Go)…
Are you a public sector bureaucrat whose tyrannical boss is behaving badly? Have you recently come into possession of documents showing some rich guy is trying to move their ill-gotten-gains to Curacao? Did you take a low-paying job with an evil corporation registered in Delaware that is burying toxic waste under playgrounds? If your conscience is keeping you up at night, or you’d just plain like to see some wrong-doers cast into the sea, we here at Raising Hell can suggest a course of action: leak! You can securely make contact through Signal or through encrypted message Wickr Me on my account: rorok1990. Alternatively you can send us your hard copies to: PO Box 134, Welland SA 5007
And if you’ve come this far, consider supporting me further by picking up one of my books, leaving a review or by just telling a friend about Raising Hell!