Friday, 26 June 2015

National Security Arithmetic

So, I've been too busy to blog lately and it has taken a real piece of political idiocy to draw me out of my cave.

No, it's not the controversy about Zaky Mallah and Q&A, although it's related.  Zaky Mallah is a 31-year-old Australian man of Lebanese descent who is currently in the headlines here in Australia for his appearance on an ABC talk show.

Back in 2003, at the age of 20, Mallah was charged with terrorism offences after making a video in which he threatened to carry out a suicide bombing on ASIO headquarters.  After two years in remand, he was acquitted of the terrorism charges on the basis that he was incited to make the video by an undercover ASIO agent.  He was convicted of a lesser (non-terrorism) charge of threatening Commonwealth officials.  Two years in jail is a long time for making a stupid video.

These days he is an outspoken Islamic activist of independent mind.  He is an firm opponent of Islamic State but also a fierce critic of the current Government's approach to terrorism.

He made two points on Q&A.  The first, his initial question, was to make the point that under the proposed new citizenship law, someone in his position could have their citizenship cancelled - implying that this would be unjust since he was acquitted.  The response from panellist Steven Ciobo, the parliamentary secretary for foreign affairs, was that he was acquitted on a technicality and that he (Ciobo) would be happy to see Mallah removed from Australia.  (This is factually incorrect - Mallah was acquitted because he was a victim of entrapment and not an actual terrorist).

Mallah's follow-up point was that Ciobo had just provided a classic example of why young Islamic men are attracted to join IS - because the leaders of our nation (like Ciobo) appear to make it abundantly clear that they are not welcome in Australia.  This against the background that Mallah is on record repeatedly criticising and condemning IS.

The government's subsequent outrage at the ABC appears to be about Mallah, but is really about silencing one of the few remaining independent voices in the Australian media.  It follows up on things like the vilification of the ABC last year for reporting claims that naval officers had physically assaulted asylum seekers at sea.  If the Government launched an inquiry every time someone said something offensive or inflammatory on air, officials of the Department of Communications would never sleep.  Try listening to Alan Jones or Andrew Bolt sometime.

All this is depressing but it's nothing new.  The Abbot government has repeatedly demonstrated that it is uncomfortable with democracy and accountability, and would prefer to shoot the messenger than respond to the message.  Just ask Gillian Triggs.

The trouble is that in the middle of all this noise we seem to have missed something much more revealing.  On Wednesday Tony Abbot paid a PR visit to ASIO headquarters and was filmed meeting with ASIO chief Duncan Lewis.  As the cameras rolled the pair were discussing a set of maps which show the areas in Sydney and Melbourne where ASIO has identified the highest concentrations of terror suspects.

Bill Shorten latched onto this story in parliament yesterday, accusing the Prime Minister of airing classified documents on national TV.  The accusation is absurd.  Abbot would undoubtedly do something that stupid, but Duncan Lewis would not.  Shorten is obviously tired and not thinking straight.  It's been a bad month.  He and his party are plunging in the polls.  His name has come up in the Royal Commission for Keeping Union Misdemeanours on the Front Pages.  He also played an unflattering cameo in The Killing Season, Sarah Ferguson's expose of the long-running battle between Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard for the labor leadership.  Who says the ABC is biased?

However, tiredness is not the only reason Shorten was unable to comment on the real problem in this story. He and his colleagues have been so busy "me-too"-ing on these issues that he has effectively silenced himself.  The Labor Party has yet to oppose any piece of government legislation on national security or asylum seekers, despite the government's relentless trashing of human rights and the rule of law in both policy areas.  Who would have thought, a mere two years ago, that we would be relying on Motoring Enthusiast Party Senator Ricky Muir to be the voice of reason on these issues.

All this prevents Shorten from commenting on the real issue in this story which is, as it were, hidden in the fine print.  First of all the maps, highlighted by Lewis's commentary, show in red the suburbs from which the largest number of people have departed to fight for Islamic State.  You guessed it, these are the very suburbs which have the highest concentrations of people with Islamic backgrounds.  Zaky Mallah's point is proved yet again.

However, the main point comes almost incidentally.  In the background of the story we hear Lewis providing Abbot with some numbers.  There are currently 120 Australians fighting overseas for IS and related organisations.  They are supported by a network of about 160 people here in Australia.  I thought I might have heard wrong but Lewis confirms the number in the ABC's online update of the story.

So, do the maths with me.  120+160=280.  That's right, isn't it?  280 people.  40% of whom are on the other side of the world.  That's what our national security policy/debate/hysteria/rhetorical over-reach is all about.  In the name of protecting ourselves from these 280 people we have handed extensive extra powers and resources to ASIO, mandated the collection and retention of vast amounts of private information, changed the citizenship laws to allow the citizenship of Australians to be revoked if we think they are terrorists, mandated harsh prison sentences for offences which in any other context would be viewed as trivial, given police extra powers of search and detention, and vilified Australia's entire Islamic community.  And the Abbot government still wants more.

These must be 280 powerful super-villains, right?  Wrong.  They are mostly young men (and some young women) with troubled pasts who feel excluded from mainstream Australian society and who have been led astray by the passionate rhetoric of Islamic fundamentalists.  Zaky Mallah's point - that we are further alienating them through our rhetoric - is spot-on.  The point even Mallah does not make is that the problem is just not that huge.  We are creating a very large sledgehammer to crack a very small nut.

Bill Shorten is unable to point this out because he has been meekly collaborating in the creation of said sledgehammer.  This means all he can do is stand by and look ineffectual.  He looks ineffectual because he is.  He has chosen to be ineffectual.  He likes being ineffectual.  But if he is a mere shadow of Tony Abbot, a man who supports the same policies but without the same fervour, why would we vote for him when we can so easily have the real thing?

Much better to re-elect Ricky Muir.  At least he's prepared to ignore the hysteria and point out the bleeding obvious.

Friday, 12 June 2015

Is Joe Out of Touch?

In the wake of Joe Hockey's comments about housing affordability in Sydney there are various memes circulating which suggest he, and the Coalition government in general, are out of touch with ordinary Australians.  I've been wondering if this is what the comments really show.

Now, if the question was "did Joe say something foolish and insensitive" then the answer would almost certainly be "yes".  No surprise here.  Joe often says foolish and insensitive things.  But that's not the question.  The question is, is he out of touch?

The context was a press conference about an ATO investigation into possible breaches of foreign investment restrictions on real estate.  Apart from the actual subject at hand, Hockey made two key statements about Sydney housing.  The first:

"The starting point for a first home buyer is to get a good job that pays good money," 

And the second:

"If housing were unaffordable in Sydney, no-one would be buying it..."

Neither of these comments is actually inaccurate.  The problem is simply that both are ambiguous.

It has always been the case that if you wanted to buy a house, you needed to have secure employment.  Unemployed or underemployed people have never been able to buy housing in Australia - unless of course they inherited money.

What has shifted, if you like, is the definition of a "good job" and "good money".  It used to be that if you had a job as a tradie, or a steady job in a factory where you got to do some overtime, you could save enough money to buy a modest home in the Sydney suburbs.

Those days are long gone.  Now you would be flat out finding a home for under $400,000 anywhere in Sydney.  Even unpopular outer suburban local government areas have huge prices.  Blacktown, which includes housing commission suburbs like Bidwill and Mt Druitt where no-one really wants to live, has a median house price over half a million dollars, and the lowest quartile (i.e. the number 25% of houses are below) is above $450,000.  Cambelltown, in the far south-west of Sydney, another area with lots of public housing, has a bottom quartile price of $420,000. Good luck buying one of those on your factory hand's wage.

Not that such jobs are easy to come by these days, especially in the outer suburbs.  Of course unemployment is a problem, but by historical standards the level of unemployment is still fairly low.  The problem is that the definition of a "good job" for home ownership purposes has changed.  Now a "good job" is a well paid professional gig - a lawyer, say, like Joe himself, or doctor, or engineer, or a public service middle manager.  The trouble is that these jobs are not available to everyone.  Indeed, even those once secure factory jobs are now mostly a thing of the past.  Instead, people without high levels of education are doing things like caring for older people, or working in the retail industry, usually on a casual basis.

So Joe is not wrong, but for an awful lot of people his advice is unhelpful.

His second point is even more revealing, even insightful by Joe's standards.  People are indeed buying housing in Sydney.  Demand exceeds supply.  Who is doing all this buying?

Some of it is being done by overseas buyers, and some of these purchases may be technically illegal - but not many.  The ATO is only investigating 200 cases.

Most of the houses is being bought by people with good jobs that pay good money.  Some of these houses are being bought for their owners to live in.  Others are being bought to rent out for amounts slightly (but not hugely) more affordable than they are to buy.  These investment properties make a loss for their buyers but the owners are able to offset losses against the good money they earn in their good jobs, reducing their overall tax bills.  So in a sense, Joe is helping to pay for them.  If he had the guts he could do something about that.

Just in case Joe hadn't made the point clearly enough his boss Tony Abbott decided to underline it.

"I'm someone who has, over the years, felt a bit of mortgage stress. Even as a cabinet minister, sometimes it's hard to pay a Sydney mortgage and I know over the years I've earnt a lot more than the average person."

I thought perhaps this was further evidence of Tony's inability to manage money.  Then I realised he lives in Forestville on Sydney's northern beaches where the median house price is over $1.2m.  Even a person with a good job would struggle with that.  No wonder Tony was so keen to become Prime Minister.  Joe has probably had the same experience.  He lives a bit further south in North Sydney where the median house price is over $1.7m.

Are Tony and Joe out of touch?  No, they are very much in touch.  Not only do they own their own very expensive houses, but all their neighbours do too.  Of course some inherited them, or bought them when they were much cheaper, but houses are bought and sold in their neighbourhoods all the time.  By people with good jobs.  With some help from Joe.  They are Joe's and Tony's constituents and they are all on the same wavelength.

The problem is not that they are out of touch with ordinary Australians.  The problem is that these days ordinary Australians are a very diverse lot.  The rich - Tony's and Joe's constituents - are so much richer than they ever were.  The poor are not.  Even if they work hard, slaving away in their nursing homes, cleaning the houses of their rich compatriots or working a second job on the weekends, they will never earn enough to buy houses when the prices are set by the increasingly affluent rich.

 Joe and Tony provide a typical rich man's answer - they should get rich too.

If only it were that easy.