Saturday, 28 February 2015

Noam Chomsky

I've finally taken the time to read an actual complete book by Noam Chomsky, as opposed to reading the odd article or hearing snippets on the radio.  Chomsky is now 86 and has been publishing books and articles on a bewildering array of subjects for the past 50 years.  What took me so long?

By profession Chomsky is a linguist, often referred to as the "father of modern linguistics".  I'm not very interested in linguistics but he is more widely famous as a political activist and as America's most prominent anarchist.  Ever since the Vietnam War he has provided a steady stream of dissident commentary on US politics and particularly on its international affairs.

Anyhow, I may be slow but I get there in the end.  I've just finished reading Hopes and Prospects, an interlinked set of essays published in 2010 and dealing with various aspects of US foreign policy.

The book revolves around two simple maxims.  The first, from Adam Smith, suggests that "'merchants and manufacturers' were 'the principal architects' of state policy and made sure that their own interests 'were most peculiarly attended to' however 'grievous' the effects on others".  The second is from the Greek historian Thucydides who suggested that "the strong do as they wish and the weak suffer as they must".

The book illustrates these two maxims in essays dealing with the history of American foreign policy in South and Central America, the Middle East and other parts of the globe.  The breadth of his knowledge is truly amazing and he puts it all on show, flitting from subject to subject as one thought leads to another.  The result is that the essays often turn into rants - but enlightening and thought provoking ones.

Through this wealth of detail are some simple and consistent messages.  The first is that American democracy is dysfunctional.  The political system is controlled by corporate interests and politicians do the bidding of these corporations at the expense of the majority of the population.  This can be seen in the way corporate profits soar while wages stagnate, in the way welfare recipients have to account for every dollar while banks receive huge bailouts without even the most basic accountability, in the way health policy enriches insurance companies while delivering poor quality and expensive health care.  It is also shown in the way politicians of both sides are consistently to the right of the vast majority of the population.

This same dynamic filters over into America's foreign policy.  Throughout its history, the US has justified its intervention in other countries with a kind of special pleading, suggesting that the US is the "light on the hill" bringing hope to common people around the world.  It's interventions in other countries are cast as "democracy promotion".

The truth could not be more opposite.  From Wilson to Obama, US foreign policy has protected US corporate interests at the expense of the peoples in whose countries they intervene.  He dwells at length on Chile where in what he calls the "first 9/11" on the 11th of September 1973 the US supported the overthrow of elected socialist President Salvador Allende in favour of a brutal military junta headed by Auguste Pinochet.  In 1991 they supported a similar event in Haiti, where after decades of dictatorship the radical priest Jean-Baptiste Aristide was elected as President and allowed to last less than a year.  And so it goes in Bolivia, Grenada, Guatemala and many other countries in South and Central America.

Despite this, Chomsky sees signs of hope.  The Chavez regime in Venezuela, still intact when he  andwrote, had managed to survive US pressure, take control of its own oil reserves, pursuing a, independent socialist path and providing a rallying point for its neighbours.

The Middle East has followed a similar pattern, with US support for a series of brutal dictatorships in various countries, but in this case the situation is a lot more complex and US policy much more confused.

In Israel/Palestine matters are simple - support Israel in whatever it does.  This means that despite the rhetoric about "free and fair elections", when the Palestinians elected a Hamas regime in 2006 the US and Israel refused to recognise the result or deal with the victors, forcing the Palestinians to accept the continuation of the Fatah regime they had just rejected and causing the effective separation of Gaza and the West Bank.  Meanwhile, Israel is free to plunder Palestinian land at will.

Other interventions, however, have proved more problematic.  In the 1980s, in order to undermine the Soviet-sponsored regime in Afghanistan, the CIA funded and trained militia groups including the Taliban and what became Al Qaeda.  Also in the 1980s they supported the Baathist regime of  Saddam Hussein in Iraq to keep the Iranians in check.  They even supported the Iraqi nuclear program, providing advice and equipment.

The trouble with ruthless dictators and extremist militias is that they just won't do as they're told.  As a result, the US has moved to Plan B in both Afghanistan and Iraq.  First destroy the economy through sanctions, to the point of mass starvation and denial of medical supplies which kill hundreds of thousands of people.  Then invade the country with the aid of alternative militias and warlords (you can always find some pretext), set up a weak central government in place of the dictatorship and allow the country to be divided between rival factions, each with its little territory and sphere of influence.

The result will be terrible for the local population as we have seen in Iraq over the past year (Chomsky predicted something along these lines) but favours US economic interests who are able to control Iraq's vast oil fields and run a gas pipeline through Afghanistan without Russian interference.  US oil companies, and American energy security, must be protected whatever the cost to local populations or to American taxpayers.

There's much more where this came from, but I don't need to go on.  Reading this as an Australian is more than a little disturbing.  On the one hand, it is hardly possible for an Australian to be immersed in American politics the way Chomsky has been for the past half century.  Yet this story is also our own - not so much in South America, where Australia has little involvement, but certainly in the Middle East.  Where the US goes, Australia is among the first to follow.  We followed the US into Korea and Indo-China, helped invade Afghanistan and Iraq, backed the American line on Israel and Palestine.  For the past two decades we have gradually moved our health system away from the successful European model and towards the dysfunctional American approach.  Like the US, our own government is in thrall to big corporations (often the same ones, plus a few of our own) and out of step with its own people on a wide range of issues.

Apart from the injustice of these measures and the suffering they cause around the world, there is a warning here for us.  We make ourselves a target for terrorists, including those who have come here as refugees and then feel betrayed by the actions of their adopted countries.  But we should not be too sure of the quid pro quo.  The story of American diplomacy over the past century suggests that America will always act in its own interests.  It's allies will be called "friends" when they are useful, but can be quickly cast off or converted into enemies when they become inconvenient, or begin to show too much independence.

Is such fickle friendship worth it?  Is it enough to justify our complicity in the suffering of millions, in the destruction of whole countries?  I think not.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

World Diagram #1

I've often thought the world can be described in a single diagram.  After all, how complicated can one planet be?

This is not it, but it's a little bit of the way there - a diagram which explains how we need to understand current world events by means of a pyramid.  If I was really clever I'd make it an iceberg with the top item and half the second sticking out of the water but if you want cute and pretty you'll just have to look elsewhere.  (If you click on it, at least you'll see it full size).

The idea behind this diagram is that we spend a lot of time focused on surface symptoms of deeper problems.  Because we spend so much of our effort on the symptoms we often fail to see what lies beneath them, so we opt for superficial solutions too.  We focus on cleaning up after natural disasters, playing with monetary and fiscal settings to smooth out fluctuations in our economy, surveillance and policing to prevent terrorist attacks, "stopping the boats" in response to the global refugee crisis and so forth.  These actions seem to relieve the problems in the short term, but they keep recurring.

Beneath these symptoms there lie a series of more fundamental and intractable issues.  These include things like our ongoing state of war, long-standing ethnic and religious tension, economic inequalities and the perseverance of absolute poverty.  We are generally aware of these issues but we don't necessarily understand them very well and they are often surrounded by mythology.

For instance, when we see Islamic State carrying out religious persecutions we attribute this emergence to Islam.  In focusing on this we forget that Islam has been the dominant faith in Iraq and Syria for over 1,000 years and is only now beginning this religious cleansing process.  Why now?

In the same way, we are aware of poverty as a phenomenon but only poorly understand the dynamics of trade, colonialism and resource distribution that bring it into being, so we tend to act as if it can be solved through things like child sponsorship and community development projects.  We respond to the immediate need, or the immediate crisis, without understanding the root causes of the problems we are addressing.  This means that often our good work can be undone.  We build peace and understanding between communities only for war to break out.  We educate children but then find that they are unemployed.  We build community enterprises only for them to be destroyed by civil war.

Part of the reason that these efforts are so fragile is because there is a set of even deeper issues that underpin them.  These are first, physical and then, beneath these, psychological or spiritual.

Physically, in the 21st century we are reaching a number of hard ecological limits.  Our use of the atmosphere as a dumping ground for carbon emissions is causing irreversible climate change.  Oil production has reached its historical peak and will soon begin to decline.  Fish stocks are collapsing in many parts of the world as a result of factory fishing.  Population growth is placing strain on our agricultural resources, and factory farming is depleting many areas of arable land.

The effects of our reaching these limits are behind many of the problems that plague our world.  Climate change drives the increased severity of natural disasters, while population growth and inequality means that they impact more people, more severely.  The struggle is intensifying for access to the world's remaining oil resources, and this struggle lies at the root of much of what appears on the surface to be Islamic militancy, and of our inept responses to it.  Many of the civil wars that plague Africa revolve around control of scarce arable land and water by increasingly poor and desperate populations.

We could leave it there, were it not for one thing.  Our reaching and exceeding  these various limits is not a matter of chance, random fluctuations or inevitable natural processes.  It is caused by decisions made by human beings, often if full knowledge of their consequences.  Why do we go on acting in this apparently foolish way?

I believe at least part of the answer is that we act on the basis of a number of pervasive illusions.  If you like, you could call them forms of idolatry - false and destructive world-views.  We eternalise our nations and cultures, acting as if they were invulnerable.  We worship the gods of progress and unlimited growth, believing we can go on taking more materials from the earth without them ever running out.  We have faith that every problem has a technological solution.  In a sense, be believe ourselves to be gods, in charge of the earth and the universe.  These illusions blind us to our true situation and prevent us from changing course.

The scale of this problem, the complexity of the layers of meaning and the pervasiveness of our illusions can leave us feeling hopeless.  Should we just give up and let what happens, happen?  Should we stop doing acts of charity, or trying to work for a fairer distribution of wealth, and focus purely on the ecological or spiritual plane?

For me, looking at the world in this way in certainly humbling and more than a little daunting.  it forces me to acknowledge that I, and my friends and fellow-travellers on this journey, have only limited influence.  We cannot save the world, hard though we may try.

However, this truth can also set us free.  This becomes more than just a form of words.  Although we can easily be drawn back into the illusions of our time and place, we are also able, at least a little, to escape them.  We are able to act on the basis that our society and its driving ethos are transitory, that the way we live now did not always exist, and will not exist forever.  Our choice is not between change and no change, it is only between better change and worse change.

Our efforts, whether simple works of charity and kindness, political actions to redistribute wealth, ecological actions to reduce pollution, or intellectual and spiritual efforts to unmask illusions and shine a light in dark places, can all make it better, even if just in a tiny way.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Gillian Triggs Episode 2

Sometimes the pleasure I get from being right is far outweighed by the pain of wishing I had been wrong.  This is one of these times.

About a month ago I suggested that the media and government assault on Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs over an obscure immigration case was merely a preliminary skirmish before the release of the Commission's report into children in detention.  I'm deeply sorry to have been proved right.

Australian Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs.

On February 11 the government tabled the Commission's report, The Forgotten Children, which it has been sitting on since November while it engaged in its initial softening up process.  I've only had time so far to read the summary and skim the rest, but it is not pretty reading.

Over an eight month period, teams of Commission staff and assistants, including experts in child health, interviewed over 1,000 children and family members in eleven Australian immigration detention centres.  The Commission also received a couple of hundred formal submissions and held public hearings.

Its purpose was not to determine if the indefinite detention of children was a breach of human rights.  The Commission has consistently held this to be the case for the past 25 years, even though neither side of politics is listening.  Rather, their intention was to investigate the effects of immigration detention on children's wellbeing.

The findings are as predictable as they are depressing.  Detention is extremely harmful to children.  Children in detention suffer high rates of mental illness (often severe), high rates of self-harm, poor general health and are frequently the victims of assault.  Children detained on Christmas Island were denied any access to education for 12 months, and a number of children born in detention are stateless.

None of this serves any useful purpose.  Both the former Labor Immigration Minister Chris Bowen and his Liberal successor Scott Morrison testified that detaining children does not have any deterrent effect on asylum seekers or people smugglers.

This problem is easily solved.  The children - and their families of course - should be allowed to live in the community while their applications for protection are assessed.  Easy to do, doesn't harm anybody, even saves money.

But I have long since given up expecting sensible policy from either side of politics on this question.  Instead Tony Abbott has gone on the attack.  The report is partisan, he says - why did it not take place when Labor was governing?  Ms Triggs ought to be ashamed of herself.  She ought to be congratulating Scott Morrison for his astonishing human rights achievements.  And in any case there are now fewer children in detention than there used to be so this is not an issue any more.

Lets slow down and take these one at a time.

1. The report is not partisan.  It is quite clear that children were detained under both governments, and the period it examines straddles the most recent election, interviewing families detained during both Bowen's and Morrison's tenures.  Both ministers were grilled in public hearings.  Neither came out smelling of roses.  However, the Commission does point out that while both governments detained children (and in fact the Labor Government detained more) the periods of detention have become considerably longer since the Coalition took office and it is only on their watch that children have been detained indefinitely.

2. Ms Triggs has nothing to be ashamed of.  She is doing her job as Human Rights Commissioner, examining the actions of the Australian Government and its agencies and identifying human rights abuses.  The government should be ashamed of itself for knowingly and indeed stridently perpetrating and defending such abuses.

3. Scott Morrison does not deserve any congratulation for "stopping the boats" or for reducing the numbers of children in detention.  For a start, it is not at all clear that the boats have stopped.  Only that they have stopped landing in Australia, and this was achieved by the simple and brutal means of intercepting them and either forcing them to turn around or detaining their occupants at sea and then taking them back to where they came from.   Has any refugee's life been improved by this proceeding?  It seems unlikely.  Have there been any improvements in Australian community life as a result of having fewer asylum seekers reach our shores?  There is no evidence of this.  Meanwhile, people (including children) are being traumatised by the steadily increasing level of inhumanity of our detention regime.

4.  There are indeed fewer children in detention but they are there for much longer and in much harsher conditions.  Part way through the inquiry Morrison made the decision to release all children under 10 who had been detained prior to July 2013.  Perhaps we can thank the inquiry for this strategic reduction in numbers.  Even if we can thank Morrison, it is a very partial measure.  There are still over 300 children in immigration detention and the average length of detention has risen to more than a year.  There should be none.

What's is missing from all this bluster from Abbott is any attempt to actually respond to the issue.  Not a single thing he has said so far even attempts to refute the reports findings.  By his silence he is effectively admitting that they are correct.  Instead of addressing these findings (which would require a change in policy) he has resorted to character assassination and blaming his opponents.

I guess in a sense Ms Triggs is fortunate that she is doing her job in Australia.  In countries with worse human rights records than Australia (and there are still many although fewer than there used to be) someone who highlighted official abuses in this way would be imprisoned on trumped-up charges, or murdered in the night by an anonymous death squad.  Triggs will only be subject to vilification and character assassination.  It just serves as a reminder that standing up to the powerful is never easy, even in a country that is supposed to be democratic.

Meanwhile, it seems that those children still in detention have little to hope for from our government.  The Prime Minister's belligerence is both shocking and frightening.  He implicitly accepts that his government's policies directly harm children, and is determined to keep doing it.  He is even proud of it.

After he nearly lost his leadership, Abbot promised that "good government starts now".  Still waiting.

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Life Without Oil

If you're not worried about the future of our civilisation, you obviously haven't been listening.  You wouldn't be alone in that - this is an incredibly hard message for us to hear and we would prefer not to listen at all.  Jeffrey Sachs says that one of the reasons American politics is controlled by big corporate interests is because ordinary citizens are disengaged and distracted.  I suspect a desire to avoid facing our uncertain future is part of the reason.

I've been reading Life Without Oil: Why We Must Shift to a New Energy Future by Steve Hallett with John Wright, published in 2011.  Hallett, who is clearly the lead author, is English by birth, currently associate professor of botany in Purdue University in Indianapolis and also had a stint teaching and researching at the University of Queensland just across the river from me.  Wright, very much the silent partner, is a journalist and I assume his job was to make the work readable for a non-technical audience.  If this is so, he has done a good job.

The foundation for this book is the idea that we are living in a period the authors call the "Petroleum Interval".  This is a period of history in which systems of production are oriented around the availability of cheap, plentiful fossil fuels, in particular oil and to a lesser extent coal and natural gas.

The availability of these fuels has shaped our society profoundly.  It drives our systems of production, enabling us to cheaply produce huge volumes of goods.  It drives our patterns of trade, allowing us to easily transport materials and products around the world in a thoroughly global economy.  It drives food production, pushing us towards agricultural systems that resemble factories with high yields made possible by fossil fuel based fertilisers and diesel-driven machinery, and ease of transport seeing crops grown in huge monocultural zones and shipped around the world.  This process of globalisation has enabled the whole world to be re-oriented in the interests of the great industrial powers of Europe and Northern America (or at least, their corporations), with China and India increasingly getting in on the act in recent years.

The authors have three bits of bad news for us.  The first is that this dependence on fossil fuels is hugely destructive.  The emissions from burning fossil fuels are causing irreversible changes to our climate.  Industrial farming brings large yields in the short-term at the expense of longer term declines as soils are worked out and aquifers are depleted.  This level of damage means that even if these fuels were unlimited the processes based on their use would not be sustainable.

The second bit of bad news is that these resources are, of course, far from unlimited.  They estimate that we are now at about the point of "peak oil" - the point where global oil production reaches its peak and begins to decline.  In the last 100 years we have used about half the world's accessible oil, so it will last at most another 100 years.  However, this doesn't mean we have 100 years to sort it out.  We are using the easiest-to-access oil first so long before we use the last drop extraction will become more expensive and yields will decline.  Coal and natural gas supplies are harder to estimate, but they are subject to the same problem - they can't last forever.

Given the multiple ways our societies are oriented around fossil fuel use, and particularly oil use, the impact of declining supplies is potentially catastrophic.  These problems will be exacerbated by the changes brought about by global warming and by continued population growth.  As it becomes more expensive to generate electricity, transport goods around the world and fertilise our crops we are likely to see chronic economic problems, food shortages, rising unemployment and financial instability.  Along with this will come intensified competition for the remaining resources - more wars and more unrest.  We are, in fact, already beginning to see these events, but because we tend to focus on the short term we fail to link them to the underlying issues of energy and fuel supply.

The third bit of bad news is that there is no ready alternative to oil as a fuel source.  Renewables such as wind, solar, hydro and tidal energy are less reliable than oil, less transportable and will struggle to deliver the amount of energy required.  Biofuels are expensive to produce and compete for cropland with food production.  None of the alternatives can replace the industrial fertilisers produced using natural gas.

The best hope for our energy in the immediate future, the authors say, is a combination of nuclear and hydrogen.  Nuclear power would make up the shortfall in standing generation capacity that can't be met by renewables, while hydrogen fuel cells would fill the gap created by the loss of petrol to power vehicles and ships.  The authors are well aware of the problems with both these fuel sources.  Nuclear power generates wastes which need to be stored for millennia, and carries the risk of catastrophic accidents like Chernobyl and Three Mile Island (not to mention Fukushima, which happened after the book was written).  Nor is uranium unlimited.  Hydrogen fuel still has some technical problems to be solved, not least of which is tendency to explode.  Nonetheless, these appear to be the technologies with the most potential to bridge the gap.

What is to be done about this?  Well the authors are quite pessimistic.  In their view there will not be a smooth, pain-free transition.  We have left the task of adaptation too late, have become too dependent on fossil fuels to extricate ourselves in time.  The transition to a post-oil future will be painful, involving a great deal of suffering and conflict around the globe.  The task, as they see it, is not to avoid the collapse but to do whatever we can to reduce the amount of suffering involved, and to sow the seeds for the recovery that will come after.

This recovery, they believe, will involve us accepting a lower material standard of living than we have now.  However, they don't think this will be the disaster we fear.  All available evidence shows that more stuff doesn't make us happier.  It will involve a return to the sustainable agricultural practices of previous ages, with mixed cropping and rotation systems replacing industrial fertilisers and mono-culture.  It will involve, by necessity, more localism than we have now, with the majority of products sourced from near where we live rather than the other side of the world.

Of course not everyone is as pessimistic as Hallett and Wright about our energy transition.  In 2010 the Australian clean energy think-tank Beyond Zero Emissions published a detailed plan for converting Australia's electricity generation to 100% renewable sources by 2020, and have followed up with proposals on land management, building design and transport.  Their plan mostly relies on solar and wind generation, with a small amount of hydro and biofuel generation.  They view the costs as achievable and the technology as largely proven already.

I'm far from having the technical knowledge to judge between these viewpoints and the many others in the debate.  What both agree, though, is that change needs to happen and, indeed, that it will happen whether we like it or not.  The question is, will we shut our eyes and let it happen to us, or will we do everything in our power to manage the transition in the best way possible?

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Election 2015 - What Just Happened?

After spending a couple of depressing Saturday evenings over the past three years watching election results in which the Liberals/LNP gained substantial majorities, followed by months of pain as they set about shredding their respective governments' already feeble efforts towards equity and ecological responsibility, I finally get to talk about some good news!

A day after an unlikely Queensland election result, Annastacia Palaszczuk thanks supporters at a barbecue in Burpengary.

It's interesting that all the commentators, even the ABC's seasoned election analyst Anthony Green, were stunned at the size of the swing.  Green's initial flummoxed response was that he didn't trust the numbers he was seeing.  They turned out to be correct.  After sweeping the pool in 2012, the LNP has clearly lost its majority.  At last we have seen Annastacia Palaszczuk with a genuine, unforced smile.

What's really interesting is that the opinion polls have been saying this for some time but no-one, including me, believed them.  We all assumed that come the election the undecided voters would compare the pair, conclude that Labor seemed unready to govern, and return the LNP with a reduced majority.  It just goes to show the value of trusting the objective evidence, even when it seems counter-intuitive.

Of course, there is still a way to go yet.  Neither party has a majority yet, and numbers are still fluctuating.  On election night the ABC closed with three seats still doubtful, today it is six or seven.   We probably won't have a clear answer until next week.  Most likely someone will need to negotiate with the independents and Katter Party MPs to form a government, which will be interesting since both parties were so emphatic that they would do no such thing.

Of course the LNP has an exit option because the promise was made by Newman and he's gone.  On the Labor side, we have already heard some mumbles about the definition of the word "deal".  The smart money would be on Labor - even outgoing Deputy-Premier Jeff Seeney seems to think this is what will happen.

Meanwhile, postmortems have already begin and the question on everyone's lips is, "why did voters turn so strongly against the LNP, only three years after giving them the biggest majority in Queensland history?"  Here's a quick run-down of some of the explanations, starting with the silliest and working up.

Seeney, in his press conference today, was quick to blame Newman and his advisors.  Coming from local government they didn't understand what was required in the State sphere.  This, of course, is the same Jeff Seeney who back in 2011 cheerfully took on the task of representing Newman in the Queensland Parliament.  In a democratic system it's just too easy to blame your leaders and forget that you put them there.  If Newman lacked knowledge of State Parliament and its requirements, what were his senior ministers - Seeney foremost among them - doing about it?

Closely related to this is the idea that the Newman Government had a marketing problem.  Scott Emerson, the outgoing Transport Minister, has suggested that the LNP were a good government but they didn't communicate their policies and decisions very well.  The poor dears, they were misunderstood, and we didn't appreciate the good things they were doing for us.

There's only a short step from this piece of self-delusion to its more bitter. contemptuous cousin - the notion that Queensland voters are incapable of understanding the challenges we face and shied away from the necessary reforms.  Mr Emerson professes concern that as a result of this election reform will become impossible for Queensland governments and our public sector will stagnate.

Only a zealot could make this claim.  Queenslanders know we have a deficit - how could we not?  We knew what the LNP were doing about it - cutting public health, education and welfare services in the name of austerity - and what they were proposing to do in the future - sell government businesses to for-profit corporations.  Emerson and his colleagues would like us to believe that this will solve the problem and that there is no other way, but neither of these is true.  Budget cuts have not pushed us into surplus, and the sale of assets would make the problem worse, not solve it.  Despite the rhetoric of selling assets to pay down debt, the government was proposing to use a substantial slab of the proceeds to fund vote-winning infrastructure projects.  The LNP's problem wasn't that voters didn't understand, it was that we understood too clearly.

The finger has also been pointed at Tony Abbot's decision to knight Prince Philip.  Not that anyone took this decision seriously.  The point is that it was impossible to do so.  The fact that Abbot chose to knight the member of the royal family with the greatest capacity for buffoonery only added to the general hilarity.  This decision says there is no longer any need to take Abbot or his party seriously.  The air of strength in hard times, the illusion of a strong government dealing competently with critical issues and making tough decisions, was punctured as we fell about on the floor laughing.  When we got up, we found that we saw other, more important issues differently.  Laughter can be cathartic.

But if we take the Redcliffe and Stafford by-elections and 2014 opinion poll results seriously we can't explain the LNP's loss by looking at what happened in the last week of the campaign, or indeed in any part of it.  Perhaps the missteps of the campaign made up the minds of a few wavering voters, but most of those who deserted the LNP did so well before the election was called.  I suspect that the swing against them would have been even greater if the Labor Party had not been so under-resourced and under-prepared.

There's been a lot of talk about broken promises, both Newman's and Abbott's.  Newman said public servants had nothing to fear, then sacked 15,000 of them.  Abbott promised not to do a large number of the things his government attempted to do in its first budget.  Electors, the story goes, don't like to be lied to.

I think there is truth in this, but it misses the point.  We are used to our leaders not keeping their promises.  John Howard invented the idea of "core" and "non-core" promises and his government managed to survive for over a decade.  We all know that governments promise in haste and repent at leisure.  We're pretty cynical about politicians.

I think we should be asking why Abbott and Newman felt they needed to lie about these particular things in the first place.  I suspect the answer is that if the LNP had gone into the election with a promise to sack 15,000 public servants, neuter the judiciary and give favours to mates they wouldn't have been elected.  If Abbott had promised in advance to cut pensions and unemployment benefits and raise university fees, the Coalition wouldn't have been elected.

Australians are not so much saying they don't like to be governed by people who break promises, as that they don't like to be governed by right-wing ideologues.  We value our public sector as a buffer against extreme poverty and hardship.  We value our income security system, our public health and education systems.  We value the services that support homeless people, women escaping violence and people with disabilities.  We value the rule of law, the balance of powers, a strong and independent judiciary, the rule of law. We are not prepared to support governments who try to wind back these systems.

Queenslanders don't mind reform.  We elected the Goss government in 1990 in the wake of the Fitzgerald Inquiry with a mandate to rebuild our system of government.  Fitzgerald remains one of the most trusted figures in Queensland public life to this day.  Australians elected the Hawke and Keating governments for 13 years as they drove through difficult economic reforms.  The difference was, Hawke and Keating tried to make sure their reforms were not at the expense of the poor.  Goss and his ministers boosted community services as part of their reform program.

The LNP and the federal Coalition, along with their favourite commentators in the Murdoch press, use the word "reform" differently.  They mean cuts to services, privatisation, tax cuts and less regulation for the rich, income cuts and more regulation for the poor.  When Australians are voting against this it's not because we don't like reform.  It's because we don't like this reform.

If Abbott wants to survive past the next election, and if the LNP wants to be electable again in Queensland, they need to come up with a Plan B.

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Election 2015 - Policy Platforms

The other day I was listening to ABC Radio and a talk-back caller told us about his daughter.  She is, according to her biased Dad, an intelligent young woman and wanted to think seriously about who she was voting for.  Like any young digital native, she went online and looked at the policies of the major parties.  According to her Dad, what she found is that one party (the LNP) had a set of constructive policies which outlined what it would do in government while the other (the Labor Party) just seemed intent on criticising their opponents.

Now it's possible this man was an LNP plant (all the parties do this at elections) but it's also possible he was genuine.  If so, our young digital native has let herself down badly.  Perhaps the message is that what our young adults gain in comfort with the online world, they lose by having short attention spans.  Nothing to do with the rise of social media, and everything to do with being 18.  All that grey hair has got to be useful for something.

The fact is that both major parties fighting this election have published a lot of policies, of varying quality and specificity.  Even the minor parties have, to a greater or lesser extent.

The Palmer United Party is the lightest on policy, especially in a Queensland context.  Despite running a large team of candidates (there is one in most electorates) they have almost nothing in the way of specific Queensland policies.  Even their national policies, over a year into their surprise success in the last election, mostly consist of media releases.  Palmer, it appears, is able to fund large campaigns but is not very interested in explaining what his party actually stands for.

The Family First Party is only slightly better.  Its web page is branded "Family First Queensland" and it has a set of policies which purport to be Queensland policies, but they are very generic (generically neo-conservative, in the main) and if you dig a little deeper you find that identical policies are posted on websites branded with each State name.

Neither of these parties of the right are likely to have much success in the coming election, but despite having only 11 candidates it is quite likely Katter's Australian Party will at least win seats in the far north.  Like Family First, they only have one set of policies but at least they don't try to pretend otherwise.  Their policies are not super-detailed but given Bob Katter's tendency the contradict himself in public they are surprisingly coherent.  They reveal an awareness of the looming economic, energy and environmental problems Australia is facing, and advocate a thoroughly nationalist solution - reducing immigration and being tough on asylum seekers, protecting Australian industries, preserving fossil fuels for future domestic use instead of exporting them, and a surprisingly enlightened take on Australia's first people no doubt in response to the large and assertive Aboriginal communities in Katter country.

Of all the minor parties, the Greens are the ones who have taken policy issues most seriously.  The Greens grew out of the conservation movement and are still often perceived as an environmental party.  However, over the years they have evolved into a more rounded progressive party.  Despite never having had a member elected to the Queensland parliament - and this is not likely to change on Saturday - they have a specific Queensland policy platform that runs to over one hundred pages.  This is not developed specifically with this election in mind, but has been put together over a number of years to clarify what the Greens stand for.

It covers a wide range of issues under five headings - Natural Environment, covering biodiversity, water quality, food and agriculture, animal welfare and fishing; Social and Democracy, which includes policies about political accountability, criminal justice, ageing and disability, gambling and gender identity; Economics and Energy, which includes climate change, policies about various industries and policies on government finance; Built Environment with policies about transport and planning; and Human Services which includes education, health, social housing and reproductive rights.  You probably won't be surprised to learn that their policies are fairly consistently progressive or "left" - on environmental issues in favour of conservation, on economic issues in favour of better regulation and more equity and sustainability, on social issues in favour of better services and more public provision, and on "moral" issues in favour of gay marriage, abortion and euthanasia.

WORKING QLDAnd so to the big 2, one of whom will be forming a government in early February.  The Labor Party actually has two types of policies.  The first is a set of policies released in the context of this election campaign on Annastacia Palaszczuk's Opposition Leader website.  These cover a range of issues under the headings of Jobs and Economy (the largest group), Health, Education, Law and Order, Community, Industrial Relations, Environment, Integrity and Accountability and Animal Welfare.  The policies are a mixed bag - some are reasonably comprehensive strategies like their "jobs plan" but most, even some that sound like they should be more comprehensive, are about quite specific issues.  For instance, their "sustainable resource communities" strategy is mostly about reducing the number of "fly-in/fly-out" workers.  Many are promises to reverse unpopular LNP decisions.  This is, in a way, a more sophisticated version of Clive Palmer's policy by press release - it is a number of specific promises which, if you string them together, don't really add up to a comprehensive program.

Img_puppyfarmsThis is probably what the ABC caller's daughter found, and it does provide some justification for her comments.  They are not that detailed, and a good many of them are about undoing things done by the LNP.  Although they do mention puppies.  However, the Labor Party also has a more comprehensive Policy Platform, similar to that of the Greens.  This platform was signed off at the party conference in August 2014.  Over almost 90 pages of small type it outlines a fairly comprehensive set of policies on the range of State responsibilities - the economy, health, education and training, human services, industrial relations, the environment, These are based in a set of clearly articulated but slightly motherhood-ish values.  There's not much whacking of the LNP in this document and plenty of good policy.

The problem with this dual set of policies is it's not clear which set we should believe.  The policy platform is more carefully put together and more comprehensive, but it also contains many things which the Labor Party is unlikely to be able to implement if it gets elected.  For instance, they propose to have public housing account for 10% of all Queensland's housing by 2020.  This would require the construction of over a million dwellings in the next five years.  Even the most ambitious public housing advocates are not game to ask for that much.  The election promises, on the other hand, are all modest and achievable.

Finally, the Liberal National Party.  Unlike the Greens and the Labor Party they don't have any kind of comprehensive policy platform, but like the Labor Party they have released a series of policies during this campaign.  They are presented under a set of headings - Creating Jobs and Infrastructure (the largest heading), Growing a Four Pillar Economy, Tackling the Cost of Living, Building Australia's Best Education System, Revitalising Frontline Health Services and Protecting Our Community.  Despite what our young digital native says, these are not very detailed - often less so that the Labor Party's - and there is a good deal of whacking of the previous Labor government.  They are presented in a uniform format, each one a two-page flyer with lots of pictures and a few words in bold type.  There are also some notable omissions - no environmental policies, for instance, nothing on human services or housing, and nothing on industrial relations.

If you were to compare the two major parties solely on the basis of their election promises, you would probably end up feeling depressed at the quality of the alternatives.  Most of the policies on both sides are very specific, playing to a particular region or interest group.  There is a lot of "rollback" in the Labor policies, a lot of items funded by assets sales (sorry, "leases") in the LNP's.

Beyond the question of quality and vision, you have a choice between a moderate, centrist party interested in a notion of balance between economy, equity and environment, and a party that sees government as about economic development, delivering specific items of infrastructure and a narrow range of mainstream services.  Neither really has any kind of focus beyond the next three-year electoral cycle.

Finally, there is the question of costings.  Political leaders often claim to be able to release a fully costed set of policies, including details of how these costs will be paid for in the budget.  They rarely achieve this, and neither of our parties has.  So far the Labor Party has not attempted it, although they may release more financial details in the next couple of days.

The LNP appears to be a little ahead on this.  I can find a press release which tells us that on January 27 they released "the detailed budget finances behind its strong plan to fund Queensland’s future and deliver the services and infrastructure our growing state needs".  I can find media stories about the launch of this document, including pictures of Campbell Newman and Tim Nicholls holding it, and these stories tell me it is 22 pages long and give me a few numbers.  However, I can't find the document itself which suggest it only exists in hard copy.

As far as I can tell from the reports it is pretty much a rehash of the Strong Choices document released back in October - the sale of assets will fund a mix of debt reduction and infrastructure projects.  This means that while the costings look precise and add up, they are pretty much meaningless because we won't know what the assets will fetch until the tender process is complete.  Nor should the spending figures be taken as gospel since they depend on detailed feasibility studies which have not yet been done in most cases, and once again will be subject to tender processes.

So this is it.  If you want to know more, follow the links.  Read what they say, note what they don't say.  Make your choice.  The hour is drawing near.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

After the Crash

After reading Thomas Piketty's Capital in the 21st Century late last year, I found myself wanting to read more economics.

I'm not an economist, but as a social policy professional I need to know enough about economics to recognise when economists are having me on.  If the economics gets too technical or includes too many equations it's right over my head, but if it's written in plain English I can usually understand it.

In the last couple of months I've read two books written in the aftermath of the 2007 Global Financial Crisis - one about Australia and one about the USA.

The first, published in 2011, is The Sweet Spot: How Australia made its own luck - and could now throw it all away by Peter Hartcher.  Hartcher is not really an economist, he is a political journalist working for the Sydney Morning Herald.  If you've read his columns you'll know that he is on the "dry" end of the Fairfax spectrum, but at least he doesn't work for Murdoch.

Hartcher's question is, why did Australia come out of the GFC better than the rest of the world's advanced economies?  Was it just luck, or was it good judgement and good policy?

The proponents of luck suggest that the main reason we didn't suffer too badly is because we have coal and can sell it to China.  As long as this continued we could sail through the stormiest waters.  Hartcher disagrees.  Chinese exports, he says, are a tiny fraction of our economy.  The answer lies in good policy.

To explain he takes his readers on a rollicking journey through Australian history.  The true heroes of his story, however, are Bob Hawke and Paul Keating.  The Hawke government, with Keating as Treasurer, was elected in 1983, a time of entrenched inflation and unemployment.  The Fraser Coalition government which they replaced had failed to solve these problems and been punished as a result.

Hawke and Keating had two potential models to respond to this situation.  One was the ideological free market reforms of Thatcher and Reagan, involving more business-friendly labour laws (along with a bit of union-busting), deregulated financial markets, cuts to welfare programs and privatisation of State-owned enterprises.  Thatcher and Reagan, says Hartcher, achieved economic recovery at the expense of equity.

Alternatively, they could have followed the democratic socialist model of various European countries, exemplified by Sweden.  These countries had highly interventionist governments, high taxes, generous social benefits and high levels of government regulation.  They managed to sustain equitable societies but at the cost of inefficient economies and high levels of public debt.

The genius of Hawke and Keating, according to Hartcher, was their ability to chart a middle course between these two extremes.  On the one hand, they implemented a Thatcherite program of deregulation.  They wound back industry protections, opened up the banking system, introduced a more flexible approach to industrial relations and kept the lid on government spending.  At the same time, rather than busting unions they worked closely with them, striking a formal Accord with the union movement to promote reform.  Under the terms of this agreement, unions agreed to link wage increases to gains in productivity.  In return, the government agreed to sustain what they called the "social wage" - employer superannuation contributions, a welfare safety net, Medicare, public health and education.

The result was what Hartcher sees as a more or less ideal balance between efficiency and equity.  Productivity grew on the back of their economic reforms, as it did in the US and the UK, but unlike those nations a share of it flowed back to ordinary workers through wage increases and better public services.  This was all achieved without the stifling tax rates and government debt of Northern Europe, and without the social conflict and increasing poverty of the US and UK.  As a result, Australia was in a stable situation when 2007 rolled around.

The danger, he says, it that we seem to have gone away from this approach.  The Howard government lived off the back of the Hawke and Keating reforms, using the benefits to cut taxes and retire government debt but making relatively few meaningful reforms of their own.  The Rudd government began to tip the equation towards equity, failing in the task of economic reform and placing the Hawke-Keating legacy at risk.

The good thing about books by journalists is that they know how to write.  Hartcher tells a good story, mixing analysis with anecdote, avoiding jargon and over-analysis, keeping the tale moving towards its conclusion.  He makes a persuasive case.  However, when it comes down to it his analysis is dubious.  In focusing on Australia he largely ignores the fact that we are at the mercy of larger economies and the winds of global change.  He also thinks within a very narrow band.  What, after all, is the different in policy terms between Keating and Rudd that one could be reforming hero and the other too focused on equity for his own good?  In pursuit of the big story Hartcher ends up in generalities.  The world has moved on since the days of his heroes, but he has failed to move with it.

Which brings me to my second book, Jeffrey Sachs' The Price of Civilisation: Reawakening virtue and prosperity after the economic fall, also first published in 2011.  Sachs also has a history of economic journalism and has written a number of popular books on economic subjects.  However, he is also a serious economist - a Professor at Columbia University and special advisor to the UN Secretary-General.  He describes himself as a a "clinical economist" - his career is built on diagnosing national economic problems in various parts of the world and prescribing remedies.  To do this, he says, he needs to have a holistic understanding, seeing economics as integrally connected to politics, culture and ecology.

This book applies that skill to the US after the GFC.  Unlike Australia, the US did not come out of the crisis well.  To this day unemployment remains high, growth has slowed, poverty and inequality continue to rise, and government debt continues to grow.  What is wrong in the US, and how can it be fixed?  He outlines what he sees as six elements that contribute to America's entrenched economic problems.

The first is the ideological attachment to free markets as the source of all things good.  This belief means that regulation and intervention in markets is a "no-go" area in US politics.  This belief, he says, is a fallacy.  Well functioning economies should achieve efficiency, fairness and sustainability and all these aims require good government policy to guide the actions of private sector players.

The second problem is what Sachs refers to as the "retreat from public purpose".  From the Great Depression onwards, the USA has a history of public welfare programs - the "New Deal", the "War on Poverty".  However, in the 1980s the US began to retreat from this, seeing government programs and government generally as a problem not a solution and drawing back from a commitment to social equity and from a belief that government action can contribute to this.  The result is increasing poverty and inequality.

This is one contributing factor to a wider problem - America is a divided nation.  As well as a divide between rich and poor, there are divisions on geographic, ethnic and political lines.  These often break out into actual violence, at other times they simmer below the surface.  Either way, they undermine the sense of shared social purpose which, says Sachs, can still be detected beneath the divisions.

The fourth problem is the impact of globalisation on the US economy.  This has led to the loss of key industries as manufacturing shifts offshore.  Wealthy companies don't mind - they just shift their money elsewhere - but ordinary Americans find their jobs disappearing and nothing replacing them.

The fifth problem is that American politics has been captured by corporate interests.  American politicians rely on the corporate world to finance their campaigns.  Corporate lobbyists infest the halls of power, and Presidents of both parties draw their senior advisors from the corporate world - the Republicans from the oil industry, the Democrats from Wall Street.  Government has effectively been captured.

Finally, ordinary Americans are distracted and disengaged.  Civil society and local community organisation are in decline and Americans are stuck in their loungerooms, focused on reality TV and the trivialities of cable news, addicted to fads and the latest consumer goods.

Can it be fixed?  Well, obviously Sachs thinks it can, otherwise why write this book?  Not that he thinks there will be another "American Century" - he doesn't expect the US to ever be the dominant world economic power it once was.  However, he does believe it can regain a measure of prosperity.  For this to happen, three things need to change.

First, he sees a need for a general move towards mindfulness.  Ordinary Americans need to learn to move beyond their distractions and obsessions and become mindful of what is important to them in the longer run.  He encourages his fellow citizens to seek the "middle path" advocated by great sages such a Buddha and Aristotle, to focus on having enough rather than excess, to seek meaningful work, to build community and work towards ecological sustainability.

At the government level, he proposes an eight point reform program to put American government back on track.  This includes the goals of raising employment and quality of work life, improving quality of and access to education, reducing poverty, avoiding environmental catastrophe, balancing the budget, improving governance by breaking the link between government and corporations, an appropriate focus on national security and a goal of raising happiness and life satisfaction (rather than focusing exclusively on economic growth).

To pay for this, taxes need to increase.  He points out that through the 2000s successive governments cut taxes to the rich to the point where government finances are in serious trouble.  The Tea Party's solution - more spending cuts - he regards as simply not feasible.  The vast majority of the budget is spent on entitlement programs such as social security and Medicaid (the US's backstop health program for the poorest members of society).  These can only be cut from their present level if politicians are willing to have people starve or die from untreated medical conditions.  There is just not much fat in the federal budget, and the favourite targets of the Tea Party activists - foreign aid and allocations for "pet projects" - are a miniscule proportion of the budget.

Meanwhile, tax cuts for the rich have deprived the government of the revenue it needs to meet the basic needs of the poor.  These cuts need to be reversed, but this will only happen when politicians are no longer in the pockets of big corporations.  To do that he advocates public campaign funding, a complete ban on corporate donations and banishing corporate lobbysists from the White House and Congress.

Political reform, in turn, can only be brought about by an engaged, active populace.  Will the next generation - the Millennials, as some call them - be able to bring about this change?  Only time will tell.

Sachs does what Hartcher fails to do.  He looks beyond the superficialities of political rhetoric and "big picture" economics to what is actually going on in his society, from top to bottom.  He grasps the complexity of economic systems and their connections with society, ecology and the political process.  It's not simple to fix the problems he finds.  A lot of people are quite happy for them to remain unfixed, just as they are here in Australia.

Friday, 23 January 2015

Election 2015 - Being Cashed Up

It's taken until the second last week of the election campaign, but I finally have a piece of literature from my local LNP candidate, Leila Abukar.

I like that the LNP has pre-selected a woman of Somali origin for my local seat, but it's depressingly familiar (no matter which party you talk about) that she's been nominated for a seat they are unlikely to win.  The LNP won Yeerongpilly in 2012 by a very slim margin, and within a year their succesful candidate, Carl Judge, resigned from the party in disgust.  He is running this year as an independent but it seems almost certain the seat will return to Labor.

Still you can't accuse them of skimping on her campaign.  We've been reading about how much the LNP has out-fund-raised Labor and this is evidence right here.

All Labor could afford on behalf of Mark Bailey was an ordinary, old-fashioned letter.  Enclosed in Abukar's letter, on the other hand, is a glossy, carefully crafted four-page A4 brochure and a fake "how to vote" card which encourages me to just vote 1 for Abukar and leave the rest blank.

Leila AbukarThe whole package is testament to the advantages of being able to pay serious money to a PR firm, as well as the benefits of incumbency.  Bailey's letter makes a rather silly claim about the primacy of his commitment to the local community, without actually promising anything concrete.  Abukar's brochure, on the other hand, is a carefully crafted message balancing her party's state-wide agenda with a leaven of local content.  The words "strong" and "stronger" appear 23 times, including 11 times on the front cover.

The inside includes a central spread which sets out the LNP's five key messages: "growing a four pillar economy", "reducing crime on our streets", "tackling the cost of living", "fixing up our local schools" and "revitalising frontline health services".  Embedded in these messages, half-hidden as it were, is a criticism of the previous Labor government.  If schools need to be fixed they must previously have been broken; if health services need revitalising they must have been ailing; if crime needs to be reduced it must have been allowed to grow.  Three years on, the LNP has not yet milked every possible vote out of the perception of Labor misgovernance.

A sidebar presents us with a matching set of five "local" initiatives branded as "my action plan for Yeerongpilly".  Like Bailey's critique of the LNP's impact on the electorate, this list shows just how thin the veneer of localism is.  The first and last initiatives are essentially the same - installing flashing lights at two local schools as a road safety initiative.  The middle one also involves lights, this time on a local sports field.  The second and fourth initiatives are not local at all,  One is a State-wide program giving kids vouchers to pay for sports cub membership. The other is a State-wide fund to lower electricity prices by taking on the cost of solar energy subsidies, making power utilities more profitable for their intended private sector buyers.  This subsidy for big business is cleverly disguised as a cost of living measure.  Overall the list is slightly more substantial than Simon Finn's wheelie bin stickers but hardly exciting or groundbreaking.

The back of the brochure contains four endorsements of Abukar by people I've never heard of, but who I am intended to assume are local residents.  They tell me that she is an "amazing person", "an outstanding, hardworking and compassionate member of our community", "an inspiration" and yes, "a passionate local champion".

I've never met Abukar personally.  Even though I'm slightly doubtful as to the locality of her referees I have no reason to doubt that she would be a hard-working local member should she unexpectedly get elected.  I would love to see a Somali woman elected to our parliament to dilute the dominance of middle-aged Anglo men.  But I won't be voting for her.

Like Mark Bailey, her local loyalty will always come second to her party.  Her party, in turn, is firmly loyal to the big end of town.  In the name of "economic growth" they have dismantled the State's climate change response, authorised reef dredging, extended the leases of their sand-mining donors on Stradbroke Island, promised expensive infrastructure items to support a marginal coal mine in the Galilee Basin and weakened our industrial relations system.  At the same time they have cut human services, ridden roughshod over the judiciary, neutered the Crime and Misconduct Commission and waxed hysterical about bikie gangs.  If we re-elect them, they will transfer public assets to their business mates in the name of "budget repair", leaving a structural budget problem for their successors.

I'd love to see better safety lighting at our local schools, but not at that price.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Manus Island

You don't need any special insight to understand what is going on in the Manus Island detention centre.  You don't need inside information or intelligence reports.  You just need a basic level of intelligence.

The detention centre on Manus Island is a hell-hole.  It is made up of hot and poorly ventilated tin sheds on a tropical island.  Drinking water is rationed.  It is overcrowded and inmates have little or no privacy.  Residents have to queue for hours at mealtimes in the stifling heat.  There are inadequate health services, not enough toilets and showers, and no soap and water in the smelly latrines.  Don't take my word for it - read Amnesty International's report from their visit in November 2013.  They are still awaiting a response from the Immigration Minister.

The inmates in this substandard human-rights free zone are not hardened criminals.  They are ordinary men who have fled persecution and danger in their homelands and tried to reach safety in Australia.  Nor are they serving a sentence, at the end of which they will be freed and allowed to rebuild their lives.  They are detained indefinitely, without trial, without a clear end-point, and without any hope of clemency.  Their alternatives are to return to where they came from or to agree to settle in Papua New Guinea.

As all Australians know, Papua New Guinea has problems.  It is one of the poorest nations in the Asia-Pacific, with massive unemployment, high rates of violent crime, chronic government instability and corruption, and significant levels of community tension and conflict.  Their government has agreed to host Australia's unwanted asylum seekers in exchange for large sums of much-needed cash from the Australian Government, but many locals on Manus resent their presence and are often openly hostile.  Not surprisingly, the asylum seekers detained there do not see it as a "place of safety".  Not only do they refuse to accept resettlement there, they are too scared of the locals even to accept transfer to a less secure detention facility nearby.

So of course the inmates are protesting.  You would protest too.  Almost a year ago, protests turned violent and ended in the death of Reza Berati and injury to a number of others. This time around it seems to have been less violent.  Reports about what actually happened are hazy.  Media are not allowed in or around the compound, staff won't talk, there are no independent observers, inmates can only report in snatched conversations on contraband mobile phones.  However, it is clear that some were refusing food and water, while others were occupying buildings.  How strident were they?  Was there violence or threat of violence?  Who can tell?

It now seems that the protests are over.  Not because the inmates gave up or called them off, but because the security guards employed by Transfield, backed by the PNG police, forcibly broke them up.  How forcibly?  No-one is saying.  However, 40 "ringleaders" have been "isolated", which I take it to mean they are now in even more secure imprisonment somewhere else.  Just when you thought it was impossible, the cycle of deterrence has ratcheted up another notch.  All those unemployed guards from Guantanamo Bay know where to apply for their next job.

When the ABC's 7.30 reported on the story on January 19, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton refused their invitation to comment.  Instead we heard from detainees who claimed they were being denied water and food, that they wanted freedom, that they had been misled by the Australian Government and that they were frustrated and felt hopeless.  We heard from the Refugee Action Collective urging Dutton and his government to "stop the madness".  We heard a former staff member at the detention centre saying he didn't see how the arrangement could possibly work.

Obviously Dutton decided he needed to put his side of the story and appeared last night.  It is possibly the best interview I have ever heard from Leigh Sales.  She is polite, pointed and pithy, asking direct questions and not letting Dutton get away with waffle.

Dutton, on the other hand, is appalling.  The only time he is clear, the message is cruel and uncompromising - none of the Manus inmates will ever settle in Australia.  For the rest, he is evasive, insinuating, snide and sneaky.  I was appalled at Scott Morrison's performance as Immigration Minister, but Dutton is even worse.

He suggests that the end of the protest was achieved by the use of physical force. Sales asks "what degree of force?" Dutton starts to waffle about the presence of the PNG police and the great job Transfield did. Sales repeats the question. He says it varies depending on how cooperative the people were, the whole thing was over in 15 minutes.

 He tries to divert the focus from force by the security staff and police to force by the detainees, suggesting some of them have fashioned weapons.  "What sort of weapons?" asks Sales. More waffle. She repeats the question. He says, "we're not talking about firearms, for example; we're talking about homemade or home-fashioned weapons." She asks again, adding "just be clear please." He says "well I'm not going into that detail" and waffles some more. She tries a different tack: "And were any injuries sustained?" Dutton says, "Well, not that I'm advised of, of a serious nature".

So that would be "yes".

Sales moves on, pointing out that Robert Cornwell's official inquiry into Berati's death identified frustrations over processing and resettlement as the root cause of the unrest. Since the same problems still exist, isn't there a risk of further riots?

Dutton tries to divert into discussing the Labor Party. Sales steers him firmly back on course, but he veers off again. Finally Sales loses patience and puts it in plain English.

LEIGH SALES: ...has anybody who has been detained under Operation Sovereign Borders yet been resettled?

PETER DUTTON: Well people have in Papua New Guinea, for argument's sake, and this is an issue for the PNG government to comment on, not us.

LEIGH SALES: So yes or no: have they been resettled?

PETER DUTTON: Well, I'm not going to comment on the immigration policy within PNG but let me put it this way: there are people...

LEIGH SALES: But this is part of your policy. It is a very simple question.


LEIGH SALES: Have any people who have been detained under Operation Sovereign Borders yet been resettled?

PETER DUTTON: There are people within the Manus Island processing centre at the moment who are eligible and who are transitioning, but that is an issue for the PNG government to comment on. That's not something that I will comment on.

So that would be "no".

This is the way we are governed now.  Innocent and distressed people are shuffled off to a ramshackle prison camp on a distant tropical island, with no independent oversight and no media access.  The locals in this impoverished community resent their presence and make no secret of the fact.  They are then offered, as an alternative to spending the rest of their lives in detention, the option of settling in this community where everyone hates them.  When they protest this inhumane treatment they are subjected to even worse treatment, including physical violence.

Our government regards them with so much contempt that they consider this a successful policy.  They regard us with such contempt that when their actions are questioned they avoid answering reasonable and simple questions.  They use children as bargaining chips to blackmail independent senators into legalising their inhumanity.  The opposition, whose policy is pretty much the same, make hardly a squeak of protest.  It is only people like Leigh Sales and her fellow ABC journalists, and the intrepid activists of organisations like the Refugee Action Collective, who remind us that we are talking about human beings here.

We continue to elect these people.  What does that say about us?

Monday, 19 January 2015

Election 2015 - Being Local

Talking of local campaigning, last week I got a letter from Mark Bailey, the Labor candidate for Yeerongpilly.

The opening sentence reads as follows.

The upcoming election is an opportunity to make sure Yeerongpilly is represented by someone who will stand up for us and fight hard for our local area.

Then he lists some negative local impacts of LNP government decisions over the past three years - loss of hospital beds and nurses in two of our major hospitals, the level of youth unemployment, increased electricity bills, the closure of a local high school.  Then he goes on.

As a local resident and former local Councillor, I'll fight for more local jobs and to restore much needed funding for our frontline health and education services after Campbell Newman's savage cuts.

I will always put the interests of our local community first just as I did as the Moorooka Ward Councillor.  That's my commitment to you.

When Mark Bailey was the Councillor for Moorooka  I was working in Council and had a fair bit of contact with him.  He's intelligent, hard working, treats people with respect and has good values.  Nevertheless I think he needs to be careful what he says because he will find it very hard to keep this commitment.

Campbell Newman, of course, has the clout to commandeer significant resources for his Ashgrove electorate.  It's called "pork-barreling".  However, if you're an ordinary back-bencher like Bailey you have to get in line like everyone else.

One of our illusions about politics is that a local member's job is to try and get goodies for their constituents.  Yet so much of what governments do is for the State as a whole, rather than for any particular community.

Even Bailey's own list makes this clear.  Youth unemployment is high all over the state and in an urban area like ours, it doesn't particularly depend on anything that happens in our electorate.  Electricity prices are State-wide, provided on a grid that goes across State borders.  Even the hospitals he mentions, while certainly located here, serve a much wider catchment.  Almost every day, helicopters fly over my house to land patients from all over the State on the roof of the PA Hospital.  Of all the things he lists, only the closure of Nyanda State High School is a truly local issue.

In 2012 Simon Finn, Bailey's predecessor as Labor's man in Yeerongpilly, was running for his third term.  As it became obvious how badly Labor were doing, he tried to focus his campaign on his personal standing as a hard-working local member, "listening, acting and getting results".

Unfortunately the actual list of results was quite meagre, even when padded out by initiatives that belonged to other levels of government.  His big claim to fame, about which we received a number of pieces of correspondence, was a campaign in which he got residents to put huge stickers on their wheelie bins telling drivers to slow down.  It's a good idea, but hardly a dramatic result for six years of hard work.

So what was he doing for all that six years?  Well, in addition to spending time with his constituents, listening to their concerns and perhaps advocating for them and their needs, he was sitting in parliament and on parliamentary committees, helping to draft and review various pieces of legislation and providing input into policy and resource allocation across the State.

Perhaps at times he was using these processes to get some resources into his own community but you would hope that wasn't all he was doing.  You would hope that faced with a choice of, say, putting more resources into health services in middle class Yeerongpilly or sending them to remote Aboriginal communities where life expectancy is 20 years less, he was able to look beyond his re-election to wider issues of justice and fairness.  If Mark Bailey gets elected, I hope he will do likewise.

And then, of course, we all know that Mark Bailey is a member of a party.  Within the party he may indeed "always put the interests of our local community first", but once the party has decided he will vote with his colleagues even if this is to remove resources from his electorate.  If he doesn't, the party will expel him and that will be the end of his political career.  He can only honestly make this claim so emphatically if he believes, as a matter of faith, that whatever his party decides is what's best for us.  I don't think he's that stupid.

I wish Mark well.  He seems likely to be our local member come February and I think he'll do a good job.  But I don't expect he will always fight for his own local community and I'd be disappointed if he did.  So, I think, would be many of his other constituents.  I'd be happiest if he made a constructive contribution to good governance of our State, to fairness, justice and ecological responsibility.  Why, I wonder, are these not mentioned in his letter?

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Gillian Triggs

Just for something a little different, and a little more pissed off, here's something slightly removed from the Queensland Election.  You may have noticed some headlines recently about Human Rights Commission chairperson Gillian Triggs.

gillian triggs

If you read the Murdoch press, especially the Australian, they will be hysterical.

Gillian Triggs backs Indonesian Wife Killer Detainee

Tony Abbott blasts Gillian Triggs over wife killer John Basikbasik

Gillian Triggs' advice a 'betrayal' of women

The Guardian is more, well, guarded.

Abbott attacks Gillian Triggs over call to free convicted refugee John Basikbasik

You may notice that even though Triggs is far from a household name the headlines - even in the Guardian - use her name not her title.  I wonder why that would be?

A quick summary of the story.  John Basikbasik is a West Papuan refugee who arrived in Australia by boat (actually, by canoe) in 1985.  He was granted a protection visa on the basis of his connections with the West Papuan independence movement and has been living in Australia ever since.

Since settling in Australia, Basikbasik has committed a number of crimes.  The most serious was in 2000, when he assaulted his then partner so violently that she died from her injuries.  He was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to seven years' imprisonment.

Basikbasik completed his sentence in 2007 and was released from prison.  However, his protection visa had been cancelled following his conviction and so instead of being released into the community he was transferred to Villawood Immigration Detention Centre, where he remains to this day.

In late 2007 the Immigration Department concluded that it would breach Australia's international obligations to return him to Indonesia because his connections with the West Papua independence movement would place him in danger.  However, no Immigration Minister has been prepared to release him, and his various applications to ministers and tribunals for a visa, community detention or some other way to get out of secure detention have all been rejected.  As a last resort, he turned to the Human Rights Commission.

The Commission's job is to examine whether Basikbasik's continued detention breaches Australia's obligations under international human rights law, in particular the prohibition on arbitrary detention.  As the Commission's report says. "to avoid being arbitrary, detention must be necessary and proportionate to a legitimate aim of the Commonwealth".  If it finds a breach, it can recommend what the Commonwealth should do to rectify the problem but can't make binding orders.

After examining the case, the Commmission found that this detention did indeed constitute arbitrary detention, and recommended he be paid $350,000 compensation.  Implicit in the recommendation is that he should be released into some form of community detention, with conditions to reduce the risk of further violent offences.  Commissioner Triggs communicated these recommendations to the Department of Immigration in March 2014, and they wrote back in May rejecting them.  She submitted her final report on the matter to the Attorney-General in June 2014, and it was publicly released on November 24 accompanied by a press release.  You can read the report here.

End of story?  Well, yes as far as Ms Triggs is concerned.  She has done her job, made her recommendation and communicated it to the government.  She moves on to the next case.

Not, however, as far as News Ltd is concerned.  Last week they "broke" the story in a fever of outrage.  Tony Abbott and his various Ministers were quick to comment.  Abbott said the Commission's ruling was "pretty bizarre" and likely to "shake people's confidence in institutions like the Human Rights Commission".

Scott Morrison, the Immigration Minister who rejected the original recommendation, was more vitriolic.  He suggested that Triggs was “always arguing for a fair go for those who have forfeited that right by their own behaviour” and added, “There seems to be no consequences for one’s actions in the system she seems to believe in.”  His replacement, Peter Dutton, added that her recommendation was "so far from the public view, it is just offensive".

Of course I wonder why we are hearing about this story now when the report was released in November, and when the government has had the recommendations since March.  But more importantly, why the fake outrage?

Triggs is not a naive do-gooder.  She is a distinguished senior lawyer with a detailed understanding of human rights law.  She also, incidentally, knows enough about criminal law to see what has happened here.  Unfortunately Abbot, Morrison and Dutton don't seem to get this - or else they just don't care.

Nothing could be further from the truth than the idea that Triggs is advocating a system where there are "no consequences for one's actions".  Basikbasik was sentenced to seven years jail for his crime in 2000.  His sentence expired in 2007, so by 2014 he had served double the consequence prescribed for his crime by Australian law.  He is now detained not for his crime, but because successive Immigration Ministers (Labor and Liberal) have considered him a risk to the Australian public.

Nor does Triggs disagree with their assessment.  She reports on his history of disciplinary issues in detention including some for violent incidents.  She covers the findings of various psychiatric assessments which to varying degrees suggest that he is prone to violence, has problems with addiction and impulsiveness, and so forth.  No-one is pretending John Basikbasik is a nice guy.  The decision to keep him in detention is certainly defensible.

What she does disagree with is the notion that indefinite detention is the only way to manage this risk.  She says the Immigration Department have failed to explore the alternatives including community detention, a proper management and rehabilitation plan and the placing of various conditions on his release.

To my mind, it would have been surprising if she had not found his detention to be arbitrary.  What other conclusion could she possibly come to?  He has served the sentence for his crime twice over and has no prospect of a release in the forseeable future.  His punishment is clearly already disproportionate under Australian law and becomes more so as the years pass.

If he was an Australian citizen this treatment would be outrageous and illegal.  He is being detained not on the basis of a crime he has committed, but on the basis of one he may commit in the future.  Because he has no legal standing in Australia he is at the mercy of the Immigration Minister, and successive holders of that office have not known the meaning of the word.

But I don't think that's really what this story is about.  Why is a formerly low-profile immigration case, long done and dusted, suddenly headline news and cause for so much government outrage and chest-beating?  Why is Gillian Triggs being named and shamed with such vitriol?

During 2014 Triggs and her staff conducted a detailed, substantial inquiry into children in immigration detention.  According to the published timetable, this inquiry will now be complete and its report will have been presented to the Government towards the end of 2014.  It has yet to be released publicly, but no doubt it was some senior adviser's holiday reading.  Like to guess what's in it?  Like to picture Abbott, Morrison and Dutton trying to convince the Australian public that keeping children in indefinite detention is not a breach of human rights?  Like to imagine Scott Morrison suggesting that these children have "forfeited their right" to a fair go "by their own behaviour"?  Like to imagine Peter Dutton commenting that the recommendation for their release is "just offensive"?

Obviously a little preemption was in order.  Much better to be attacking the Commissioner over a 51-year-old wife killer than over hundreds of innocent children.  A little subtle prompting would have been all it took for their mates at News to run with the story and give them the excuse to express a little shock and horror.  A good way to ensure that most people's first impression of Triggs is of someone who has sympathy for a wife killing savage who travels by canoe.

What would you like to bet that when the report into children in detention is released the stories in the Murdoch press (no doubt the first to appear courtesy of a strategic leak or two) will refer back to this case as an illustration that Triggs is "so far from the public view as to be offensive" and that previous decisions have "shaken people's confidence in the Commission"?  Perhaps such a shaking of confidence is the whole point?

Triggs herself has defended her recommendation.  Among other things, she says:

Those who commit a criminal offence, and serve the sentence provided by law, do not forfeit all their human rights for the future. Indeed, it is a vital element of our modern criminal justice system that those who commit offences should have the opportunity to reintegrate into the community once their sentences have been served.

Over the next month or two this story will fade away and she will get to talk about children in detention.  I doubt that she will be phased by all these shenanigans.  Misconduct aside, they can't sack her until her term expires in 2017.

Meanwhile, she has a job to do.  I trust she will keep doing it, and not let the bastards grind her down.