There's been controversy around hiring practices at Humanist House. We've recently had a Special General Meeting to give control of day to day operations of the Society to the Executive. It was a very difficult meeting, and I thank everyone who turned up and supported the resolutions, and I particularly thank those members who helped with meeting process.
A recent meeting of the executive has terminated the hiring of Humanist Hall by the Public Information Forum. I've also communicated with our members through our newsletter, the Humanist Viewpoints - which means I now have more freedom to communicate with the public, and make a full statement. How many times have people complained about hearing something through the media first ?
Things have settled down to a large degree, though there are still a few hurdles to overcome.
The Humanists have a long and noble tradition, of advocacy on behalf of voluntary euthanasia, separation of church and state, and access to abortion. These are the sort of issues I would like to promote, a heritage I am trying to continue. Public interest in these issues has been growing of late. While we are not the only group focused on these ideas - I am nevertheless positive that we can contribute something.
Our membership is diverse politically, and some of our committee have had a strong commitment to freedom of speech. We've been attracting a good number of new members recently with a strong commitment to humanism.
Along the way, however, we've also attracted a group of people whose commitment to all humanist principles - including equal human rights for all and a disdain for racism or any form of xenophobia - has been questionable.
The group in question, known as the "Public Information Forum" (PIF), or "Klub Nation", did previously meet at Humanist House. After concerns were raised about the group, hiring was discontinued.
At some later stage, another group began hiring the hall, under the name of "Mark Pavic's Group". This group later became the Public Information Forum, and it was only recently that we realised that it was in fact the same group which had previously been banned.
Sometime after the "Mark Pavic Group" hired Humanist House, but before the group became known as the "Public Information Forum", the NSW Humanists were in turmoil as the status of a long time member, Ann Young was challenged by the then President. At about the same time, we had to contend with the machinations of another group trying to take us over. It was at this time that I stepped up to become President. It was a problematic time, but I felt that I could contribute to the progress and stability of the society.
Some members were concerned about other members of the Society, and one initiative was to introduce an endorsement of Human Rights and equality into our Rules (constitution). Statements against racism and xenophobia have been put forward by the International Humanist and Ethical Union, not to mention Australian Humanists; but nevertheless, we felt the need to incorporate such references into our *own* Rules as a bulwark.
At that time, following past turmoil, we did not properly understand what the "Public Information Forum" was. Mark Pavic strongly defended the group, and was able to take advantage of his forceful personality and understanding of committee process. We have since realised that he sometimes made erroneous claims about committee process, which he made up for through force of personality.
Perhaps in response to this growing concern, or perhaps with other goals, our last election resulted in a committee which included many PIF members who had not previously attended social gatherings or committee meetings, contributed to the Humanist Viewpoints or otherwise taken an interest in the NSW Humanists. The election was itself problematic, with no scrutiny of candidates before the election, and confusion about preferential voting.
Some committee members were investigating our options within our Rules. It was a tense and stressful time. In the middle of all this tension, a group decided to protest the presence of PIF at Humanist House.
My position about this group has been previously put forth. While I was willing to endorse the right of democratic protest, I do not endorse these protests, as they became violent. While the protesters were organised enough to field a good presence at Humanist House, they were not organised enough to contact us before the protest, nor have they taken the initiative of contacting us since. Instead they just pushed flyers noting their protests through our letterbox - effectively, anonymous harassment. Their actions seem to more those of people who stand in the shadows and throw rocks - that is to say, coercive disruption of other's freedom of expression and assembly.
If things were tense prior to the protests at committee meetings, they became worse. Mark Pavic and other PIF members on the committee accused myself and others of collaborating with the protesters, and claimed that the police would be investigating the damage which resulted to Humanist House. They made some quite strong claims about the protesters - that they tried to enter the building, after which they could have caused who knows what damage. I know from Ann Young, a local resident and member, that the protesters were striking Humanist House, and we know that a glass panel inside Humanist House was damaged around this time.
Indeed, we did find out about the protest through distant overlapping activist channels - but did not directly know anyone involved. It had us completely spooked. Perhaps we should have notified members of PIF of the protest, but we thought it would be small, peaceful affair - nothing like the large, violent protest which developed. I turned up, hoping to communicate with the protesters and maybe get some new members - but seeing the police presence and tense situation, immediately saw this was a bad idea. In fact, if we'd not have known at all of the protest at all, maybe we would have been better off, given the accusations that started flying around.
I did in time talk to police at Redfern Local Area command, and managed to persuade them of my version of events. The protesters knew that the group went by the name "Klub Nation" - news to us - and it seems had been protesting elsewhere. PIF members thought that the only way protesters could have found out about their meeting was through us - but some internet research would have yielded the necessary information. Others don't just sit around like stunned mullets - they take the initiative to their own thinking and research.
If the protesters would have met with us, things might have been different. In the absence of any communication, the PIF version of events went unchallenged - we did not know any better. On the one hand, I do feel PIF's narrative was overstated. At the same time, I acknowledge they were genuinely fearful as events unfolded. The protester's careless and ill-thought out actions exacerbated an already difficult and stressful situation. Great work, guys.
Showing how people were shooting from the hip, a group associated with the United Nations Association of Australia met at Humanist House had their meeting disrupted by another group who thought they had other sympathies. Perhaps they could have bothered to actually do some research ?
What to do ? We were doing our best to conduct our fight privately, and did not really want to air our troubles in public. However, there were critical postings on Sydney Indymedia, and so I did one of the things that I, as President, can do - I issued a statement.
This was a very difficult time. I was trying to make a statement, in the meantime dodging accusations on committee. I was harassed on the phone by someone who identified themselves as being from Fairfax digital. It was not pleasant.
As things progressed, we realised that PIF had been attending Humanist House, and had been banned but had since managed to re-arrange access (as previously noted). When this was brought up in committee, the original past motion was rescinded by the PIF aligned bloc with perhaps three other committee members voting as a majority.
This was a setback. But, over time we developed sufficient support from committee members allow scrutiny of PIF members, doing some internet research on the "Stormfront" website. In fact, as the weeks progressed, some posts were deleted from that site, suggesting a response to our scrutiny. We considered Jason Rafty, whose internet postings identified him as "Klub Fuhrer" of the PIF - and in spite of committee tensions, had a sufficient majority to have this recorded in the minutes. We also scrutinised the connections of committee member Ken Cratchley to racist postings on the internet.
We also received communications from the "Fight Dem Back" (FDB) group, whose communications were moderately polite to start with, though they did border on patronising / threatening at times. We found out about some past involvement of Mark Pavic and others on the committee with the British - Israel World Federation ( http://www.austlii.edu.au/cgi-bin/sinodisp/au/cases/nsw/NSWSC/2002/12.html ). That was appropriate to consider, and relevant to our situation, as it went to Mr. Pavic's behaviour in groups, on committees and to his status as a "Meeting Procedure Advisor". However, FDB note other events from Mr. Pavic's history - from 20 or more years ago. FDB should discuss the ethics of this promotion with another activist group, Justice Action.
In any case, in addition to helping us with our understanding of the group involved, FDB also pointed us towards a web interview with "Pastor Ken" of the Christian Separatist Church Society, also identified as "Pastor Bullets" on the Stormfront website ( see http://www.nsm88radio.com/pastshows.html ). The voice is recognisably that of Ken Cratchley, one of the PIF aligned committee members - and on review it becomes apparent that Christian separatism is a combination of both religious and racist sentiments, something antithetical to Humanism.
While we were making progress, it was going to be long struggle. It became clear on consideration of the Rules that the result of the last election, given there was no introduction of candidates and confusion about preferential voting, should be considered null and void. We went about organising a Special General Meeting to make the election results null and void, which would allow proper scrutiny of the PIF.
This meeting was the most difficult meeting I have ever attended, with a great deal of hostile interruption and heckling - and I was the one chairing. Fortunately, I had the assistance of various members in the audience who supported me and kept things on track. However, as the meeting progressed, the interruptions from Mark Pavic became ever more unwieldy and disruptive, and I had to call the police to support my removal of him from the meeting.
The police attended promptly and supported his removal. It put the police in a different light. These were the same police who lined up in front of Humanist House to defend it from protesters. This was criticised by some internet commentators at the time, as somehow "supporting" the PIF. This shows lack of understanding how the law works - perhaps a wilful misunderstanding. I certainly supported their defence of Humanist House. It was these same police who were crucial in allowing the progress of the meeting towards an eventual reduction in the influence of the PIF.
I've also had a chance to get to know the police as they investigated the protest at Humanist House, and have been able to answer the of accusations which were flying around. Look. I don't wish to give the police free license. I'm sympathetic to the concerns of the NSW Council for Civil Liberties about the use of Tasers and possible covering of the Taser cameras. However, at a fundamental level, the police are human beings who are often doing their best in difficult circumstances - and they made an important contribution against the PIF.
Of course the police will not say the were deliberately working against the PIF - they would most likely say they were responding to a request from the person with authority over Humanist House, without picking sides - no more than they were "supporting" the PIF against the protesters. The point is, though, it was unfair to claim the police were "supporting" PIF against the protesters in the first place. They were doing their job as best they could in a difficult situation.
Following this meeting, we were then able to hold an executive meeting where we were able to properly scrutinise PIF. We have an obligation to do things properly and thoroughly, while others have had the luxury of unaccountably mouthing off on the internet.
I'll now summarise my position (there will be some repetition of previous content) :
Public Information Forum / PIF have attracted the attention of several activist groups around Sydney, including the group "Fight Dem Back". While other hirers of HH have a public identity and often a webpage (one example is the "Spartacist" group, a previous tenant, which have a regular publication, website and entry on Wikipedia), there is no similar such information available on PIF. Instead, there are some references on the "White Pride Worldwide" website, Stormfront. These postings refer to the discriminatory attendance policies of the group. Further, postings by attendees of the group are often racist, and the group's convener is described as its "Klub Fuhrer". The only reasonable conclusion which can be drawn from this is that PIF are a racist group.
The NSW Humanists has in its objectives "To encourage respect for the universal human rights of men and women free from discrimination on the basis of race, class, disability, gender, age, nationality or sexual orientation.". Further, the International Humanist and Ethical Union, which we are a part of, has made statements against racism and any sort of xenophobic intolerance. Consistent with these principles, the Executive recently cancelled the hiring of Humanist House by the PIF group.
Our rules also mention "freedom of expression". In fact, PIF are a private group, which has not make any public statements that I'm aware of. One issue is support for the freedom of people and groups to make statements in the public sphere. The freedom of people to discuss matters privately is separate issue, while there is some overlap with "freedom of expression".
In making this cancellation, it does not mean we endorse censorship or the coercive limitation of freedom of expression - be that by Government or private groups. It does mean, however, that we choose not to support the expression of ideas - be that public or private - contrary to our principles.
So, we are now at the stage of preparing for the elections foreshadowed in the last Special General Meeting. There are still some hurdles to overcome. However, I have reason to be positive about the future. About the possibility of the NSW Humanist Society to pursue the things it was founded to do - to challenge the hold religion has on our laws and behaviour, limiting people's freedom to pursue their own lives.
Humanist Society of NSW
0419 683 353
(I originally attempted to post this under my own previous Indymedia account, rather than as 'Anonymous', but was not able to access it.)