Privacy and what it means for Australia’s metadata laws and the NSA’s phone tapping

by on 6 May, 2015

By Edward James

"Edward James is just one voice among seven billion. To Edward, it matters not what happens to him personally but; rather, what you do with what you have read. For is an idea only worth the value of its speaker or should the merits of every statement be assessed in its own right?"

“Edward James is just one voice among seven billion. To Edward, it matters not what happens to him personally but; rather, what you do with what you have read. For is an idea only worth the value of its speaker or should the merits of every statement be assessed in its own right?”

The issue of privacy goes far beyond the government intercepting telecommunications. However, the relatively recent leak by Edward Snowden regarding the activities of the US government serves as a good lesson in privacy in general.

In regards to this specific issue, there were some people that actively endorsed the government listening in, some that did not care as they have nothing to hide and others that were concerned about what this type of surveillance means for civil liberties. It is fair to be concerned about the matter. In most cases, people are expecting to have private interactions to later find out that what they have communicated has been received by unexpected parties.

There are probably plenty of conversations that you have had where, at the very least, you would not like the subject of these conversations to know what was being said about them. Or, there have probably been a number of very personal things you have said about yourself that you only wanted a selected group of people to hear (like your doctor for example). It should be noted though that, even in these circumstances, there is still a chance of others finding out. Someone may overhear what is being said or an intended recipient may pass the information on to others.

What the mass phone-tapping scandal of the NSA did was raise the likelihood of people whose opinions you care about finding out information that may sour their opinion of you. For that is all that privacy really is, stopping others from having a complete/fuller picture about your life. There are things you do and say which you would prefer that some others did not know about.

To explain, ignoring how the NSA obtained the information for the minute, does it have any real world implications if a faceless person which you will never meet knows a few intimate details about you? The answer is no. The issue of privacy and domestic spying is a game of ‘what ifs’. What if hackers stole that information and publicly published it? What if the person who viewed this information knows the same people I know? What if I become famous and that person with the information uses it to bring down my fame?

The real reason privacy is a concern is not because others may find out about what you are doing, but because it is not socially acceptable to be your true self in a way where others are aware of what you are doing. The concern about privacy extends from a general human condition of valuing those that display an idealized version of themselves instead of the reality. It would take too long to go into the evolution of such behaviour and it is not overly important why this phenomenon exists. The point is, when you break it down – the concern about privacy is really about keeping up appearances.

For an actual example of such a thing, look no further than Facebook. People present self-styled versions of their life for others to see. Compare how many profiles there are on Facebook with, say, the number of status updates highlighting that someone is watching porn and masturbating. Considering the sheer amount of porn on the internet, the number of porn-related status updates is not in line with what is expected – should people actually present complete pictures of their lives.

Privacy in and of itself is a form of disinformation. To maintain privacy is an attempt to ensure that others do not know everything there is about you.  To look at it another way, imagine really early humans with no shelter, no private property and no clothes and so on. Let us say that you are amongst these humans. You now need to void your bowels. You can either do it in the open where everyone can see or behind a bush. All other things being equal and ignoring things like defecating where you eat, what do you choose?

In the example, if you do not want others to see you go to the toilet, it is you who has to manufacture privacy by going behind a bush. For a less on-the-nose example, imagine instead you are about to have sex with a fellow human of the group – do you do it in front of everyone or do you find a secluded spot? It is the same thing, in either case there is no entitlement to privacy. To say that there is; is to say that that others cannot explore, walk around or look in a particular direction of the open world at certain times because you feel uncomfortable.

Bring it back to today, imagine now that you have a house and a fence and so on. That said, you have decided to build everything out of transparent Perspex. Anyone standing on the street or next door can see into your property and see everything you do from going to the toilet to showering to touching yourself. It was your choice to build such a place and the people seeing into your house are freely standing on public or on their own private property. The only way to stop people seeing what you do is to have others force those that would look into turning their heads or by creating an exclusionary zone around your house.

To have an entitlement of privacy in such a situation would be to forcibly control the behaviour of others – even in their own homes. Not only that, but it is to do so for the sake of your own feelings. State entitled privacy is quite literally the limitation of the actions of others to spare your feelings. The problem on legislating by feeling will be discussed later, suffice to say, considering the gamut of emotions people can have, to legislate on the basis of feelings is to set a dangerous precedent.

What does this all mean for telecommunications privacy thought? Well now imagine you are in your regular house with its windows and its walls. One should note that people can still look into your windows as they would your Perspex house. More importantly, look at the principles of sight: a certain range of electromagnetic waves are generated or reflected off things and then these waves come across an eye which responds a particular way to these waves and by responding such a way it sends signals to your brain which then depicts the world around you visually.

The only way that people can see is if you are generating or reflecting light off of yourself or your personal belongings. It is in fact you who is broadcasting visual signals to others – regardless whether you intended to or not. If you do not want others to see what you are doing simply ensure that no light escapes the area that you are doing these things in. For who are you to say that others cannot interpret the signals that you personally are sending to them in the first place?

So now consider the electromagnetic waves one broadcasts when using Wi-Fi or mobile communications. You are creating something and distributing into through public and other people’s private areas. To demand that others not look at it is to try and prevent others from using what you have freely given them. Those unintended recipients of your broadcasts are under no contractual obligation with you to behave in a certain manner – they are not trading anything to receive what you provide. Perhaps the only people who could not look are those that provide the service in the first place – on the proviso that the initial service agreement included this as a term.

In reference to internet traffic, considering the internet makes use of public networks; to say that the government and all that use those networks cannot view your data is to demand private exclusivity in a public setting. It would be like driving down public roads and asking people not to look in your car windows. Just as the government can set up cameras and sensors to track all the details of those that use the roads so to can they do that with public networks – of which the internet is a part.

Another example would be like sending a postcard in the mail and asking those to not read what is written in plain sight. It would be an entirely different story though if a letter was in an envelope and the envelope was opened en route to its destination. In the latter circumstance, a product is being tampered without the agreement of the owner of said product. This goes back to the principle that privacy is your responsibility to manufacture.

If you do not want the government to look at how you use the internet, to intercept your telecommunications or for the public in general to see what you are doing, then you need to utilize methods of disinformation to ensure that only the intended recipients receive the message. For your Perspex house; tint your windows, for your letters; put it in a sealed envelope, for your mobile signals; set up an encryption system, for internet traffic; use private networks or proxies or, again, a method of encryption and for your Wi-Fi; set a password. Note though that none of these are foolproof and people can still attempt to overcome your obfuscation.

The only time you are ‘entitled’ to privacy is when the only way that people can see what you are doing is if they enter onto or alter your private property without your authorization. Which brings this to Australia’s metadata laws. These laws force private enterprises to engage in practices that they would otherwise have a choice about in order to track the telecommunications of the people. Considering that laws are not a matter of consent but coercion – if you do not follow, you are punished and you have no choice about the creation of said laws – these laws in particular do in fact violate the only privacy you are entitled to. The government is forcibly altering matters between private enterprises in order to see something it otherwise could not.

Note here though that this assumes that the ‘right’ of the government to interfere into the actions of others is in question. Should you simply accept that this institution is freely able to determine what others may or may not do; the metadata laws are fine. And, that is fine if you do think like that. But, on that principle alone it is very hard to then draw a line between what is acceptable and unacceptable interference without it being a case of ‘because I said so’.

If one does in fact question the authority of government and should that government be a public institution then the concept of public networks extend to government information. Just as you should be able to freely stand in public and view all the world around you from that position and just as those that operate or use public networks can observe all that goes through said networks, so does the public have access to all information held by public institutions.

To describe exactly what that does or does not apply to would take many thousands of words and would be incredibly dull to read – plus it would necessitate detailing the logic used to justify each case. Suffice to say that public institutions only contain public information. Please note though that this statement cannot apply to victims of crime as they do not choose to be victims. Nor can it apply to public/civil servants under orders [of, effectively, the public] where knowledge of those orders will place them at risk of direct harm – like undercover police officers, for example.

That said, the US government loves to classify things a secret on the basis of national security. Unless a direct and logical flow of cause and effect can show that the release of such information will place an actual person at greater risk of harm the argument of necessity by security cannot hold-up.

To use an outlandish example, aliens: if there is classified evidence to their existence, this could not be kept secret on the idea that people in general would flip-out with the knowledge. Knowledge of aliens does not directly control the actions of people – you are not forced to act one way or another on that knowledge alone – and rioting still depends on the choices of rioters. Thus, there is no direct cause and effect. Even if people are prone to panic, which they are, it is just bad luck if they destroy society as you live in the world you create.

That said, public knowledge of detailed military technology or tactics does jeopardize the lives of the operators or units in defending from aggressors (assuming one’s military is used for defence against attacks or stated threats) – which is in line with protecting the identity of undercover officials.

Hopefully there is enough information here to be able to explore further cases on one’s own. The point of this piece is to highlight what privacy actually is and what that should mean if one lived in a reasonable society. Exactly how this all should be policed, including the distribution of potentially sensitive government information is another matter. Noting that the policing methods themselves would also need to be consistent with everything else as well, if one wanted to maintain reason and justice.

However, to ask and expect people to be reasonable and consistent is a foolish endeavour. The odds of it ever happening on a mass scale are slim-to-none. That does not mean people could not suddenly act in such a manner, but the presence of emotions and self-interest make it highly unlikely. This is not a bad thing; it is just a reality one has to deal with. For more on my views on how to solve issues like these, head over to my blog,  The Last Revolution.

Is Canadian Socialism In Decline?

by on 6 May, 2015

Front Politics is a strange business.

It makes celebrities of the less Hollywood-esque of us, it can create success nobody dreamed possible, bring high flying careers crashing down, expose the worst of us, bring out the best in us.

It can also be a hard beast to predict. So often the polls can get it wrong, so often the people can swing erratically to deliver something nobody would expect.

Not in Alberta, though. Alberta is solid. Alberta is strong. Alberta is certain.

To Love Thy Neighbour

by on 29 April, 2015

Sherry Sufi

For this time, this place, the death penalty is as primeval as it is an act of prime evil.

It served a purpose in the Middle Ages when criminality was rife and often the only way for authorities to get their point across was through pursuing the harshest retributive measures possible.

The death penalty is not right. Not for our near northern neighbours, not for our partners across the Pacific, not for the Middle East, not for anyone, anywhere in the world at present.

I know I am not alone in condemning the execution of convicted Australian drug traffickers Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran.

I commend the efforts of Prime Minister Abbott and Foreign Minister Bishop for attempting to do what they could to have a more proportionate sentence pronounced upon these two.

Abbott made the point well in stressing that we respect our neighbour’s sovereignty but we do deplore what has happened.

I dedicate the following poem I wrote yesterday to these two victims of the use of state power at its worst.

What Britain calls the Far East is to us the Near North
Too close for comfort but we’ve shown our sheer warmth
Love thy neighbour, bonds built on more than a one-time favour
Prone to battle through adversity, knowing the sun shines later
East Timor was a seesaw but we did a balancing act
Drug traffickers die, terrorists live, where’s the balance in that?
When a wave charges in, we’re more than trade partners
Put our money where our mouth is yet the cleric praises his martyrs
And despite every illegal charter, we keep pumping that aid
Yet instead of showing mercy, there’s another coffin made
A mistake with the luggage so costly a blunder, I only wonder
How the two gave death the death stare as we mourned down under
Clemency is only what you ask others to show your own
What ever happened to ‘he who is without sin shall cast the first stone’?
Two wrongs don’t make a right, so if asked what I thought of you
I’d say ‘forgive them, for they know not what they do’

Sherry Sufi is a Political Editor with qualifications in Politics, History, Philosophy, Information Systems and International Studies. He has worked as a Policy Adviser to both State and Federal MPs. Sherry’s PhD research investigates the role of first language in ethnic conflict and nationalism. He can be reached via facebook here.

Race Baiters Don’t Deserve the High Ground on Indigenous Policy

by on 14 April, 2015

11004220_10153074719993794_467850264_nThere is perhaps no area of public policy as desperately in need of fresh ideas and honest debate than the disadvantage faced by Indigenous people. Yet it is difficult to think of a topic more hamstrung by political correctness and woolly-minded clichés than the plight of the first Australians.

The public reaction to Tony Abbott’s recent description of living in remote indigenous communities as a ‘lifestyle choice’ which taxpayers should not be required to endlessly subsidize is a case in point. Admittedly, the descriptor of ‘lifestyle choice’ was ill chosen and unbecoming of a Prime Minister. However, Abbott’s broader point: “that if people choose to live miles away from where there’s a school… if people choose to live where there’s no jobs, obviously it’s very, very difficult to close the gap,” is one that deserves to be discussed frankly and openly.

Unfortunately, any hope that Abbott’s critics would offer a reasoned reply to the substance of his argument– that remote living places serious constraints on remedying indigenous disadvantage – were soon dashed.

Greens Senator Rachel Siewert labelled Abbott “unbelievably racist and completely out of touch.”

West Australian Labor frontbencher Ben Wyatt, went further, accusing Abbott of “portraying the ancient cultural practices of Aboriginal Australians as nothing more than a sea change move, the equivalent of painting landscapes on one’s veranda.”

Author Guy Rundle suggested that Abbott’s comments were fuelled by cultural contempt for indigenous people, claiming “the destruction of remote Aboriginal communities has long been on the deep conservative agenda.”

Thanks to this puerile mix of personal attacks and race baiting, the substantive issue of the sustainability of indigenous communities living in virtual isolation was successfully framed as being simply about cold-hearted conservatives forcing indigenous people off their land. Tainted by the politics of race and division, the matter was rendered unsavoury for discussion in polite circles.

Although silencing your opponent by way of public character assassination seems to be an effective way of winning an argument on any number of indigenous issues, it contributes nothing to solving the far-reaching disadvantage suffered by aboriginal people. And even if the sustainability of indigenous people living in very remote areas is a conversation politically correct elites would prefer stayed closed, the issues faced by those living in these communities remain real.

It is wholly unrealistic to expect that communities with fewer than 100 or in some cases even 50 people would ever be able to enjoy anywhere near the same standard of living as those in towns and cities. Ever greater sums of public funds in the areas of health and education have failed time after time to produce outcomes within even striking range of even semi-regional areas.

For children growing up in these communities, this isolation places undeniable constraints on their future life prospects, particularly their chances of achieving fulfilling careers and becoming self-sufficient members of society.

Abbott is equally right to point out that taxpayer support cannot be unlimited. It will instinctively strike many as cruel to even talk about cutting funds from a disadvantaged group like indigenous communities. However, the fact is that every cent spent subsidizing communities that are unlikely to ever be self-sufficient is done so at the direct expense of other areas of public need. At a time of ever increasing demands on public money, it is both reasonable and necessary to draw limits on how far resources can be redistributed to regions that are irremovably wedded to government life-support. Of course, where such limits should be drawn is the province of reasonable debate and disagreement. The point, however, is that with some communities housing as few as six people, the discussion is worth having.

None of this is to deny that Aboriginal people living in these communities have a close and abiding connection with their land. Rather, it is to expose the naivety of those happy to accept that the existence of indigenous cultural affinity with the outback is enough to end the argument before it has even begun. If we want ‘closing the gap’ to mean more than a tokenistic catch-phrase, the realistic prospects of improving the lives of those in the bush is a topic that cannot continue to be skirted for fear of causing offence.

The feverish determination of race-baiters to shut down debate was again recently seen in responses to announced plans to trial cashless welfare cards in remote communities. The brainchild of mining magnate Twiggy Forest, the welfare card would look and operate just like any ordinary debit card, with the exception that it could not be used on alcohol or gambling.

Given the scourge of alcohol and drug abuse in some rural communities, a modest form of income management that makes it harder for welfare to be squandered on destructive ends seems like a sensible idea. It is true that the card doesn’t address the underlying social ills of alcoholism and problem gambling. Nor will it realistically prevent those who are truly determined from getting their hands on alcohol. But as a way of helping to ensure more public money is spent on meeting the basic needs of people in these communities, the idea deserves at least some credit for getting the ball rolling.

Predictably, Greens Leader Christine Milne, thought the welfare card was an idea not even worthy of civilised discussion: “I think it’s really offensive to all Australians to see our Prime Minister standing up with a wealthy and privileged other white man, a mining magnate, telling people throughout Australia who are less well off how they should manage their income.”

If Milne had bothered to look beyond the gender and race of those spruiking the welfare card, she might have noticed that wives and partners from within remote communities have in fact been calling for moratorium on welfare-funded booze for years. In any event, painting the welfare card as a case of wealthy white men controlling how the benighted spend their pittance is either deliberately coy or peddling pure fantasy. Welfare isn’t pocket money. It is distributed to those who need it in order to alleviate poverty and disadvantage. The welfare card does this by limiting spending on gambling and drinking; two luxuries that might readily be described as the polar opposite of what such payments were intended for in the first place.

The intersection of child protection and indigenous policy presents a lesser known, but equally compelling example of political correctness sucking the oxygen out of reasoned debate. Under the ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Placement Principle (ACPP), indigenous children who require out of home care are to be placed wherever possible either with immediate family members, or within their existing community. Introduced following the public fallout of the stolen generation, the ACPP was devised with a view to preserving the cultural identity of indigenous children in need of care.

The trouble is that by giving precedence to the preservation of ‘culture’ above all other factors, such as the ability of carers to meet basic needs, the ACPP has consistently seen aboriginal children placed in conditions of sub-standard care. According to Policy Analyst at the Centre for Independent Studies Jeremy Sammut, the problem lies in the fact that “the sorts of culturally determined parenting practices… which may have been suitable in the social conditions of the past, are no longer functioning well in the present.” Anthropologist Peter Sutton describes this culture of “customary permissiveness in the raising of children” as being responsible for the neglect of basic need such as adequate food, shelter and medical attention in Aboriginal communities.

Naturally, any explanation for the alarmingly high incidence of child abuse in indigenous communities that centred on the prevailing culture within such communities was simply “divisive grandstanding” according to Ngiare Brown, the deputy chairman of the Prime Minister’s Indigenous Advisory Council.

The race baiting continued from National Children’s Children Commissioner Megan Mitchell, claiming that “a level of racism” was behind the overrepresentation of aboriginal children in the child protection system.

Yet with the number of aboriginal children on care and protection orders doubling between 2000 and 2011, blaming these disturbing figures on ‘institutionalised racism’ starts to look more like a convenient scapegoat than a plausible explanation.

Some have even attempted to explain-away far-reaching evidence of systemic neglect in some communities by accusing social workers of being insensitive to ‘cultural difference.’ Paddy Gibson, a researcher at the University of Technology Sydney has argued that allegations of neglect are often unfounded because aboriginal children usually have more autonomy than non-indigenous children.

This might be more convincing if Indigenous children were not eight times more likely than other children to be victims of substantiated abuse claims. Then again, with Gibson arguing that whether or not a child is neglected is merely a “subjective” judgment call, it is hardly surprising that statistics seem to carry so little weight with some members of the intelligentsia.

All this would be less concerning if current indigenous policies were achieving anything close to their desired effect. Yet according to the latest ‘Closing the Gap’ report, there has been no progress in indigenous reading and numeracy since 2008. Worse still, this same period has seen a decline in Indigenous employment.

If we are honest, the shouting down of any idea that presents even a modest challenge to the status quo is depriving Indigenous people the benefit of an honest debate about how their disadvantage might best be ameliorated.

 

This raises a puzzling question: what motivates those who time and again have expressed their concern for the Aboriginal community in the most in the most emphatic terms imaginable, yet so fiercely resist ideas that sit outside the existing paradigm of chronically underachieving policies? The most obvious explanation is the long shadow cast by past atrocities committed against aboriginals has fostered an innate wariness of any ‘tough love’ measure designed to push aboriginals towards greater self-reliance. Perhaps it is this instinct that has so often seen those who question the wisdom of policies which view state dependency as a cure rather than a temporary treatment accused of being mean-minded or lacking in sympathy.

 

Again, this would less perturbing if allowing indigenous policy to be dictated by lingering guilt for the wrongs of past generations had yielded anything better than an uninterrupted string of abject failures.

 

On the more extreme ends, it is doubtful whether deep down race-baiters actually accept that measuring indigenous progress according to the usual indicators of living a healthy and successful life – things like educational achievement and workforce participation – is even the right thing to do. For these people (often Greens parliamentarians or academics who find themselves sitting on the far left fringe of the progressive peanut gallery), the original sin of British settlement means it will always be wrong to hold any expectation of Aborigines participating in mainstream life in modern Australia.

Sadly, the costs of sticking to policies stifled by shibboleths of cultural Marxism and political correctness is borne solely by the Aborigines who continue to live lives marred by despair and despondency.

Testament to power: remembering Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew

by on 14 April, 2015

sean-jacobsSean Jacobs discussed Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy, and the lessons we can learn:

‘We start with self-reliance,’ said the late Lee Kuan Yew in a 1994 interview. ‘In the West today it is the opposite. The government says give me a popular mandate and I will solve all society’s problems.’

On 22 March 2015 Lee passed away at age ninety-one. The end of his remarkable life offers a sobering reflection on what it takes to actually build an economic pie and not just cut it up – a practice many of today’s democratic practitioners appear exceptional at.

Singapore now thrives alongside the Silicon Valleys and Tel Avivs of the world. Back in the 1960s, however, Malaysia effectively dusted its hands of the small nation by forcing it to break away.

A future of poverty and desperation appeared likely until Lee, warding off communist subversion and the revolving emergence of security threats, turned Singapore’s slim fortunes around. ‘He did not just pilot Singapore to prosperity,’ added Margaret Thatcher, ‘he became the most trenchant, convincing and courageous opponent of left-wing Third World nonsense in the Commonwealth.’

In his revealing memoir The Singapore Story Lee admits to flirting with socialism and Marxist theories of development – a legacy, perhaps unsurprisingly, of his Cambridge years. When taking the reins of Singapore, however, at just 35 years of age, he shed the vogue fascination of government-sponsored egalitarianism. He came to ‘realise’, unlike his post-colonial African peers, that individual self-agency and not government largesse was the true ‘driving force for progress throughout human history.’

‘That realisation had to wait until the 1960s,’ he wrote, ‘when I was in charge of the government of a tiny Singapore much poorer than Britain, and was confronted with the need to generate revenue and create wealth before I could even think, let alone talk, of redistributing it.’

His template for success had two planks – stability then education. ‘First, you must have order in a society,’ he reflected. ‘Then you have to educate rigorously and train a whole generation of skilled, intelligent and knowledgeable people.’ Lee, of course, meant a real education and real skills – more engineers and entrepreneurs, for example, versus flower-arrangers and personal fitness trainers.

Armed with an uncomfortable frankness Lee never shied away from cultural or racial explanations for Singapore’s Confucian-inspired success. As a young boy, observing sweating Indian and Chinese labourers building Singapore, Lee recorded his own cross-cultural comparisons. ‘One Chinese would carry one pole with two wicker baskets of earth,’ he told Australian journalist Paul Sheehan, ‘whereas two Indians would carry one pole with one wicket basket between them. Now that’s culture.’ This kind of steely resolve, welded to a good education and a commitment to family, meant Singaporeans developed in leaps and bounds.

The Growing Sharia Threat

by on 14 April, 2015

img_GeorgeChristensenProfileGeorge Christensen MP writes how the rise of Sharia in Australia is denying Muslim women complete freedom and access to the law:

IN PLACES where the long arm of the law struggles to reach, a second arm gathers strength and tightens its grip on willing and unwilling victims, mostly women.

In some Australian suburbs it is no longer a case of one law for all as Sharia-style dispensation of justice is quietly executed in Australian mosques on a daily basis.

An Australian imam has openly said he is doing just that in Sydney mosques every day.

Sheikh Haisam Farache, who is being trained by Legal Aid as a culturally and linguistic diverse mediator, said this role “formally recognises what he’s been doing for years – applying Sharia to arbitrate family disputes and avoid(ing) a long and painful journey through the court system.

Sheikh Farache said he had been applying Sharia during stints as an imam at Artarmon and Lakemba mosques, where he typically facilitated “two or three mediations a day”.

He believes “Sharia has been playing out in the Australian Family Court” since mediation was introduced into the Family Court system in 2005.

Though it is flagged as a mediation process to resolve family disputes, there is a very real concern that we may have a repeat of the situation which Britain faces, and is now trying to rectify.

The poor treatment of Muslim women in that country is so extensive that a Member of the House of Lords, Baroness Caroline Cox, has introduced a bill to strengthen the law’s ability to regulate sharia courts and force them to comply with anti-discrimination law.

Baroness Cox has said: “We cannot sit here complacently in our red and green benches while women are suffering a system which is utterly incompatible with the legal principles upon which this country is founded.”

Could we be doing the same thing in Australia by assuming that Sharia law will not and is not operating in this country?

Australia again at risk of becoming the “poor white trash of Asia”

by on 13 April, 2015

RathCormannPerrottet

Christopher Rath outlines Australia’s dangerous economic position and the reform that needs to be undertaken to avoid Australia’s economy falling.

This week an alliance of the nation’s leading industry and business groups gave their sternest warning yet to our political leaders- neglecting reform “will set us on a path to economic despair”. This isn’t hyperbole as a quick glance at our nation’s economic indicators illustrate that Australia has rising unemployment, low economic growth, low productivity and is wallowing in government debt.

 

A mining boom coupled with the bold economic reforms of Hawke/Keating & Howard/Costello ensured that Australia enjoyed a quarter of a century of unbroken economic growth. We were the miracle economy, defying the widely held assumption that Australia would go into recession every 10 years or so. Against all the odds we avoided plunging into recession during the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, the 2000/01 Dotcom bubble burst and of course the 2008/09 GFC.

 

Unfortunately Australia’s dream run is likely to come to an end in the next year or two and we are at risk once again of becoming “the poor white trash of Asia”. Monetary policy can only go so far to address these issues as a historically very low cash rate of 2.25% means that the Reserve Bank has little wriggle room left in terms of slashing interest rates. Reducing the cash rate is also a blunt instrument, likely to help an already booming property market, and there is often a long and variable lag before the benefits are noticed to the economy.

 

Microeconomic reforms generally incur an even longer lag with the benefits not felt for years. No doubt part of the reason that we’re facing these economic challenges now is because of the mass exodus of economic reform during the 6 years of Rudd/Gillard/Rudd. They would no doubt claim reforms such as the carbon tax, mining tax, abolishing Work Choices and counter cyclical stimulus payments. But reform implies improvement and these policies have left Australia poorer, uncompetitive and less free.

 

The Coalition is also somewhat to blame, since the zeal for economic reform was far greater under Howard/Costello than it is today under Abbott/Hockey. They have taken workplace relations reform off the table and budget trims haven’t gone far enough to address our fiscal crisis. There are however some achievements to celebrate such as scrapping the carbon tax and mining tax, privatisation of Medibank Private, $2.45bn of red tape slashed, and most resoundingly, three historic free trade agreements delivered in just over a year. It is also extremely encouraging that Premier Baird was re-elected on a reform agenda.

 

However the problem remains that Australia has low productivity and eroding international competitiveness. This is where economic reform is needed most, not only because investment can leave Australia with the press of a button, but also because productivity is the main driver of economic growth and better living standards. Yet we are faced with the fact that Australia’s multifactor productivity fell a concerning 1.3% from 2007 to 2013 and for the first time ever Australia is no longer amongst the 20 most globally competitive nations.

 

And the reason for this?

 

“The main area of concern for Australia is the rigidity of its labor market (54th, down 12), where the situation has deteriorated further. Australia ranks 137th (of 148 countries) for the rigidity of the hiring and firing practices and 135th for the rigidity of wage setting. The quality of Australia’s public institutions is excellent except when it comes to the burden of government regulation, where the country ranks a poor 128th. Indeed, the business community cites labor regulations and bureaucratic red tape as being, respectively, the first and second most problematic factor for doing business in their country.” (The Global Competitiveness Report 2013-14).

 

To avoid becoming the “poor white trash of Asia”, Australia should:

 

  1. Reform our workplace system to at least a comparable level as Howard’s first wave of changes with the Workplace Relations Act 1996. Work Choices amended this act in 2005 but the Fair Work Act 2009 has taken Australia back to pre-1996 levels of workplace inflexibility.
  2. Drastic budget cuts and not the trims we’ve seen are required to achieve a surplus and start paying off government debt much sooner than the 10-year prediction. Of course the Labor Party and the Senate are mostly to blame for our budget woes, but expensive programmes like Paid Parental Leave and Gonski funding should also be shelved. The Centre for Independent Studies and Institute of Public Affairs have proposed savings measures that could be easily adopted.
  3. A serious attempt at tax reform that must involve overall reductions in taxation. Broadening the base of the GST and increasing the rate to 20% could be offset with income tax and company tax reductions. The states also need to be part of the discussion, especially in terms of abolishing two of our nation’s most hideously inefficient taxes- payroll and land tax. A reduction or even abolition of capital gains tax could also be offset by reforming our negative gearing loophole.
  4. Ongoing privatisation and asset recycling as a means of addressing our infrastructure backlog. State governments in particular have a vast array of inefficient utilities, service providers and infrastructure assets that they can put up for lease or sale. Asset recycling can also serve as an important reform in improving state-federal relations.
  5. Build on this renewed era of Australian free trade by seeking new opportunities (India has already been flagged) and also adopting the Commission of Audit’s recommendation to crack down on industry assistance. This will ensure that Australia focuses on areas where it has a comparative advantage, such as finance, agriculture, tourism and of course mining (Australia’s three largest exports are now iron ore, coal and natural gas). Manufacturing is no longer part of this mix, making up 9% of the economy but receiving 70% of the industry assistance. 

 

These five suggestions may weather Australia from future economic crises even if it is too late to avoid a possible imminent recession. Indeed it may take an economic crisis for Australia’s political leaders to wake up and get serious about reform. No doubt many would see these five suggestions as ‘controversial’ or ‘radical’ and opposition from Labor and a hostile Senate would almost certainly ensure their failure. But our nation’s economy is too important for populism and Labor should support economic reform in much the same way as Howard adopted a bi-partisan approach to floating the dollar, financial sector reform and tariff reductions under Hawke and Keating.

 

The business community should also grow a spine and not leave the task of selling reform solely to the Coalition. Scott Morrison and Joe Hockey were completely correct in labeling many in the business community as “armchair critics”.

 

So brace yourself, without either a much more assertive Coalition and business community or an economic crisis that leads to bipartisan action, Australia could indeed have many decades of economic despair to come.

 

 

Christopher Rath is a consultant in the mining industry. He previously worked as an adviser to state and federal Liberal Parliamentarians and has degrees in economics and management.  

“Move on” laws target civil liberties, protesters, and the homeless

by on 8 April, 2015

Victoria's unions should be proud of their efforts to strengthen freedom of association in Australia.

Victoria’s unions should be proud of their efforts to strengthen freedom of association in Australia.

Vladimir Vinokurov is a solicitor and a deputy Victorian State director of the Australian Taxpayers’ Alliance. The views expressed here are his own.

Vladimir Vinokurov is a solicitor and a deputy Victorian State director of the Australian Taxpayers’ Alliance. The views expressed here are his own.

Do you think police should have the power to fine anyone they like on the spot for any reason? New South Wales’ new “move on” laws come dangerously close to doing exactly that. They empower police to fine anyone for just looking suspicious, even if they are innocent of any crime. Backed by the Baird government and the NSW Labor opposition, they are an affront to our civil liberties, including the right to freedom of movement, a fair trial and the presumption of innocence. And they are also a danger to the homeless, who will be their most likely victims. Still, we should be thankful that it is not as extreme as its recently repealed Victorian equivalent, which imposed extraordinary restrictions on the right to freedom of movement and protest.

“Move on laws” have created an entirely new category of victimless “crime”, which consists entirely of arousing police suspicions. Bear in mind that suspicions are, by definition, unfounded beliefs. So the laws empower police to fine any person who refuses to move on from their current location if that person is suspected  being a hindrance to passersby, or of committing a crime or even of being likely to commit a crime. It is not clear how the police can judge you likely to commit a crime; however if we assume police possess the supernatural power to predict the future then we can begin to make sense of these laws. The scope for  abuse of these powers is enormous.

Importantly, innocence is not a defence to the “crime” of arousing police suspicion. Police are entitled to fine you even if you are innocent of any crime. If you choose to fight the fine, all the police had to do was show that their suspicions were “reasonable” when they fined you. Far from being a tool to fight militant unions or extremist protesters, the evidence indicates that move on laws have primarily targeted homeless people.

The power to fine individuals on the basis of police suspicions, without any proof of guilt, is an extraordinary attack on our right to freedom of association, the presumption of innocence and a fair trial. Most people simply will not fight a fine in Court. Some of the fines issued by police may be unjust. They might be caused by simple mistake or selective prosecution and vindictiveness. We are not likely to know this simply because such fines will go unreported.

While the Victorian Liberals claimed that these laws were necessary to clamp down on militant unionism and extremist protesters, they have not pointed to a single instance in which these powers have actually been used against militant trade unions or extremist protesters. Nor have they produced any evidence that these laws have played any role in reducing crime. This is because there is no such evidence.

The Victorian Liberals’ claim that the police have failed to enforce the laws on the books to deal with militant unionism or extremist protesters is simply false. Threats, intimidation and violence are already illegal. They are criminal acts, punishable by jail time if necessary. If the prosecution proves that a person has committed an act of violence beyond reasonable doubt than they will go to jail. If people are not being prosecuted it is because there is not enough proof to prove their guilt. It is that simple. There is no evidence nor any suggestion that the police are too incompetent or unwilling to prosecute violent offenders simply because of their links to trade unions or extremist political organisations and frankly, if that were the case there is no reason to believe that police would be any more capable or honest if they were given more powers. This is not to suggest that none of the protesters have broken the law; it is simply to say that we deserve to know whether they have or not before we punish them. If we punish them without knowing if they are guilty or innocent, we could well face the same treatment next. The Victorian Liberals’ claims are a substance-less scare campaign, pure and simple.

Thankfully, NSW police have no power to move on those who appear to be protesters. Nor, thanks to the Andrews’ ALP government, do Victorian police enjoy that power. But the existence of these powers is objectionable regardless.

And there is always a risk that police will use these powers against protesters anyway in the hope that they might get away with it if the protests do not take place directly in the public eye.

One thing we do know about move on laws is that in practice they are used to drive homeless people into the criminal justice system. As Lucy Adams of legal support organisation Justice Connect notes,

“Laws that regulate public space are rarely intended to punish people for their homelessness – but this is often the effect…. Circumstances that cause people to be sleeping rough, begging or drinking in public are almost always health and social issues, not criminal ones… prison should not be a substitute for supported housing, mental health care or substance dependence treatment.”

It is worth noting that police are also empowered moving on persons affected by drugs or alcohol in New South Wales, and the likelihood is that the homeless will still be targeted by these laws as well as other move on laws.

In practice, move on laws target the homeless on the nonsensical premise that it is better for them to be in the criminal justice system than receiving support and care from charitable organisations.

Not only are these laws totally ineffective in reducing crime and a means for police to harass innocent citizens; they probably increase crime rates by needlessly throwing already marginalised groups such as the homeless, youth and Aboriginals into the criminal justice system. Indeed, in Queensland, 76.8% of homeless persons surveyed reported having received a “move on direction” by police. For example, because the homeless cannot drink in their own homes, they are more likely to be moved on as some of them may get drunk in public instead. These groups face an increased risk of police confrontation or detention that could needlessly open the gateway towards a life of crime. It is a destructive process, it unnecessarily burdens the criminal justice system and, ultimately, endangers the public far more than being a nuisance in public ever would. In that respect, police involvement in the lives of the homeless will prove not only pointless but dangerous.

Of course, it doesn’t help that begging for money is actually a crime in Victoria, which means police can actually take money from the homeless as the supposed proceeds of crime, fine them $100 for begging and further involve them in the criminal justice system. I daresay that if it were anyone but the police taking money from the homeless they would be pilloried as the worst kind of despicable thief. But these are the laws our elected officials have instituted and continue to maintain, and these are the laws our law enforcement agencies enforce every day. It is simply shameful.

The strengthening of NSW’s “move on laws” is an appalling development which should be condemned.  By contrast, the winding back of these laws in Victoria should be cause for celebration.

Notes:

1. NSW’s move on laws are defined in sections 197-204B of the Law Enforcement (Powers and Responsibilities) Act 2002 (NSW). The laws were introduced in mid-2011 by the O’Farrell Liberal government.

2. Victoria’s move on laws are now largely equivalent to New South Wales. See s6, Summary Offences Act 1966 (Vic).

The Plight of Remote Communities

by on 2 April, 2015

Aboriginal Affairs advocate Jack Wilkie-Jans believes economic diversification is key to making remote communities sustainable.

Let’s be very clear straight up, the Western Australian government are [currently] not closing and have not actually closed any communities.

Though the discussion to close these communities is indeed real and has only come about due to the Federal Government’s announcement to cut funding to the Western Australian government in the first place.

There are residents who are very concerned that their homes may be left high and dry, bearing in mind the historic context around such actions (i.e. stolen generations and Protection Act in Queensland) and the fear this would naturally instill.
Keep in mind also the fact that many of these communities are not actually communities but homesteads instead, with around three or so houses.
I think we will end up seeing funding cut to “remote communities” but will see some of the smaller places re-classified hence finding their funding via other funding schemes under other funding models.
At the end of the day all citizens of Australia deserve the same quality of services, perhaps a better fly-in, fly-out, per monthly service or needs-based service providing is needed. Cape York is a good example of this working.
Historically, no modern country can ever repay the debt they owe to the bush, especially Australia which was built on the back of the bush and those living there. In the broader scheme of things what is truly needed for the bush to get back on its feet is for the governments to stop closing off home-grown industries and invest more in inland irrigation, dams and water management so as to see agri-business and primary industries make a comeback.
We must see the vast expanses of land as a farming opportunity once again, not just a haven for mining hence creating mining dependent, temporary communities. Primary industries can employ people from far and wide whereas mining can only employ people nearby in population centres. Liken it to Weipa on the Western Cape of Cape York Peninsula in Far North Queensland which is the hub for mining and hence hub for other industries. The community of Aurukun is not that far away as the crow flies and yet Aurukun does not have the option to be employed at Andoom mine near Weipa.
In fact, unless Aurukun gets a mine, it has only a few options to find economy based employment ergo, sustainability.
If cattle, agriculture, carbon offsets or tree plantations for sustainable timber were introduced, such industries would connect spread out, individual communities in a way which mining simply couldn’t.
You will find that when it comes to many social issues in remote places that this goes hand in hand with economic issues as well and to address this both must be worked on together.
The Western Australian government base their argument for finding savings in this area because of the lesser population numbers, which is expected in bureaucracy as bureaucracy deals with numbers not people. In fact you’ll probably find the suggestion to close communities is a departmental suggestion more than it is a government stance.
The thing is too many governments are too concerned with finding savings when to truly fix the bank and the economy, you actually need to invest in money making ventures such as re-investing in what Australia does well which is namely, production and producing. That’s a fact.
With the option of re-introducing regional TAFEs this could keep school aged yet school leavers in or near their communities and with the introduction of primary industries, this could mean they don’t have to go far to work. This creates sustainable communities and healthy lifestyles and also generates income. This is what weans people off of welfare- when they have something to be weaned off of onto- NOT expensive and unsuccessful Welfare Reform Trials. It’s not necessarily the fault of Welfare Reform Trials as to why they are unsuccessful, it’s because it is not a holistic approach.
What I outlined here is a holistic approach and is one which could see remote communities become viable, relevant and sustainable.
Jack Wilkie-Jans is a contemporary Australian artist and Aboriginal Affairs advocate from Cape York Peninsula, Queensland.

What’s missing in Baird’s cabinet?

by on 2 April, 2015

Dean Hamstead calls for Mike Baird to appoint a Minister for Deregulation & Elimination of Waste!1924165_50280265534_4415_n

Yesterday Mike Baird announced the cabinet for his re-elected NSW State Government.

A Government’s ministry titles are designed to show that the Government cares. For the left, it’s a kind off dog whistle to keep their activist elements calm. Tony Abbott found this out when he took a more concise approach to portfolio titles. As a Libertarian leaning Conservative, I hope these titles are a promise of serious focus and taking action.

What I really want to see in the cabinet, is a Minister for Deregulation, Efficiency and Elimination of Waste.

Whilst other ministers and their departments seek to find more ways to justify spending and legislation – a minister and an entire department whose sole purpose is to engage itself entirely and completely in eliminating government waste, improving operational efficiency and repealing outdated, ineffective and unnecessary legislation.

Such a portfolio would be the first with a negative budget. An entire department who hands money back to the government each year!

The Coalition base should have no problems supporting this, and even the dwindling Hawke/Keating wing of the Labor Party (i.e. the sensible part) should have no qualms.

Naturally, the far-left will scream ‘Razor Gang!’

Obviously, a top down approach can save a few dollars in the first year – running tenders and putting the squeeze on the government’s suppliers can make some short term improvements. They may even have to implement KPI’s and fire a few people who can’t meet them. But after that, the new department will begin looking for real operational efficiencies. They may start with Lean Six Sigma and its Black Belt wielding analysts – a program that appeals to people who need to centralize power. With time they will hit a wall and start training the public service in more bottom up approaches like the Toyota Way/Toyota Production System (TPS).

They may even embrace a wonderful program that US President Calvin Coolidge ran back in the 1920’s – the 1% and 2% clubs. These programs rewarded public servants for finding savings of 1% and 2%. Providing a strong incentive to, initially, simply hand back unneeded funds – the opposite of how things are today – and later on, rewarding them for getting creative with how services are delivered. There is no Razor Gang to be found when the people on the ground doing the work are finding ways to be more efficient.

Looking abroad, the department will examine and learn from success stories in deregulation then push to have similar programmes implemented here. The opportunities missed through over regulation will finally have a voice.

Historically, Lobbyists came to Ministers looking for special deals and hand outs. To this new Department, they will be lobbying for special treatment and hand outs (to their competitors) to be eliminated!

The reelection of Mike Baird’s NSW State Government is good news for Conservatives and all but the most uncompromising of Libertarians. Despite our ideological differences, we can all agree that building roads is an appropriate function of Government and the Liberal-National Coalition has staked it’s reputation on a reasonably ambition plan to build a lot of them. We can also agree that taking on Government waste should be as high a priority, a new cabinet position would be an excellent start.

Dean Hamstead is a technology consultant for medium and large enterprise at ByteFoundry. He is also working to improve the use of campaign technology here in Australia.