Monthly Archives: May 2010

Tell the old parties that refugees ARE welcome here

Of course, it’s not just law and order and publicly-funded political advertising on which the two old parties are nearly indistinguishable – the two of them are shamelessly bashing refugees because they calculate that Australians are more scared and selfish than we are rational and compassionate. (That’s what happens when you read the Herald Sun letters pages, I guess.)

Anyway, there’ll be a protest in Melbourne on June 20th for those of us who are opposed to locking people up indefinitely instead of processing their claims, and who realise that “boat people” are a tiny proportion of the total “unauthorised” immigration intake who are being unfairly and wrongly demonised. Who recognise that Australia has a responsibility to take its fair share of refugees, in a world where there are vastly more people fleeing chaos in their homelands (some of which is connected with our overseas adventures) who have few alternatives. Who fundamentally object to refugees, including children, being locked up behind razor wire in the remotest parts of this country just to send a “deterrent” message.

That’s just less than three weeks away. Please mark it in your diary – and let other people know you’re going to be there.

Fearing disorder more than tyranny

Just got around to listening to a truly wonderful Law Report broadcast from a few weeks back, featuring the retiring Chief Judge of the WA District Court, Antoinette Kennedy. The whole programme is worth hearing (or reading the transcript):

It’s becoming an increasing problem. The community has become more frightened of disorder than of tyranny, and the history of the law, and the history of Australia, shows us that in reality there’s no reason to be more frightened of disorder than tyranny, and when you frighten people so that they are more frightened of disorder than of tyranny, they’re likely to give up the rights that have been fought for since the 13th century, and they’re likely to let politicians do whatever they please.

More frightened of disorder than of tyranny. Well bloody put.

There’s a discussion on WA’s mandatory sentencing regime and the sorts of injustices it occasions, and then Kennedy makes this excellent point about the naivete of passing these harsh laws and just trusting that the nice people in charge of enforcing them won’t use them against anyone undeserving:

Well it means that they can stop and search anyone they like, anytime they like, without any suspicion or without the person having done anything suspicious. So that if your next-door neighbour’s a policeman, if he doesn’t like you, as you’re going out your front gate he can stop and search you. Now they would say to me, ‘Oh that’s ridiculous, we wouldn’t do that’. Well ‘we’ shouldn’t have the power to do it. And that’s all there is to it. Again the Commissioner of Police is saying, ‘Look, we’ll only use it in certain circumstances’, and again, it is: in that case, since he’s such a decent human being, why don’t we just say the Commissioner of Police can do whatever he like because we know he’s such a nice man, he won’t do anything unreasonable?

Quite right. “We’ll only use it in certain circumstances” has never held up over time.

There’s then a devastating critique of the clumsy anti-hoon laws, following which she gets stuck into the damage the tabloid media are doing to the cause of justice.

Does this ring any bells?

We had a very bad time in Western Australia for a period of time, which is now passed, with our major daily newspaper, and they were only interested in criticising judges and they weren’t interested in making sure that the community understood what the situation was. And I understand the problems that the media have, the media obviously, they’ve got to do things that people are interested in, and it’s very immediate, but no-one has ever asked what the community is doing about the crime problem, and there is this constant attempt to put all your eggs in one basket and to think that somehow, judges have the answer to the crime problem and we’re flatly refusing to use it. Now I live in this community, I have family and property in this community, of course I care what happens to the community. Of course I care about the victims of crime, it’s positively insulting and hurtful to suggest that I am a person who doesn’t care about crime, and the victims of crime… it’s arrant nonsense.

Antoinette Kennedy is clearly a legend.

I wish some Victorian judges would come out swinging, too.

UPDATE (31/5): And an excellent piece today by Greg Barns, “Five years in jail is a hell of a time, and a fitting sentence“:

So did Justice Coghlan get it wrong? No. On my reading of his sentencing remarks he rightly undertook the exercise which judges and magistrates agonise over every day – how to give the victim or their family a sense that justice has been done, while at the same time ensuring the offender becomes a worthwhile member of the community, which will make us all safer in the long run.

If the sentencing exercise carried out by our courts were simply there as reflection of society’s need to punish, and the deep seated and primitive desire for revenge that lies in all of us, then we would hang people who murder, castrate rapists, cut off the hands of burglars and have to spend billions of dollars on building jails to accommodate all the people we want to banish and punish.

And would we have a safer society? No, but instead a more violent one, because violence begets violence.

If you see how the case he’s responding to was reported in the local tabloid, the Herald Sun – where eight years with a non-parole period of five years (as a discount for pleading guilty from the nine he would’ve received otherwise) – was just reported as “five”, and you observe the outraged comments of the misled “public”, it’s hard to deny that there’s a problem – but it’s a problem of misunderstanding, not of “lenient sentencing”. If the sentences are indeed so “lenient”, then why does the Hun feel the need to exaggerate them downwards every single time?

So it’s vital that we hear more of this common sense from people like Antoinette and Greg, lest the cynical fearmongers trying to sell newspapers actually achieve their apparent aim of making politicians enact ever-harsher laws that actually make the streets much more violent and less safe.

There IS an alternative: it’d be nice if they mentioned it

Suggestion for journos at The Age – when you’re writing a story about how both major parties are being criticised for chasing the xenophobe vote, you could at least mention the main party standing up for refugees, The Greens. Perhaps even ask them for and publish a response?

No wonder we’re stuck with two same-old parties who take the same nasty approaches on issues, when voters aren’t even being told about the alternative.

ELSEWHERE: While we’re on the topic, I’m sure it’s not at all suspicious that in the last month there’s been an increase in asylum seekers being knocked back on the flimsy – and highly dubious ground – that the Hazara community in Afghanistan are suddenly perfectly safe there. Despite major attacks on them in just the last week.

Politics trumping reason, with potentially the most tragic results? I’m sure it couldn’t be.

That’s not a national emergency…

Quick memo Kevin Rudd: mining companies running a smear campaign against your RSPT is not a “National Emergency”. No matter how ridiculous or shameless their lies.

Quick memo Liberals: you’re no better. You wasted just as much money on public advertising, and no doubt would do so again. And on the substance of this issue, you’re even worse, Official Lobbyists For The Mining Industry.

…THIS is a national emergency.

Once again, I’m very thankful that in this country we can vote against BOTH of you. And I can say clearly that I voted for, and am represented by, people who have consistently opposed this kind of undemocratic abuse of power.

The cheek

Howard government minister Kevin Andrews trying to blame the housing affordability crisis on Labor:

How Labor has made housing more expensive

He blames immigration (of course), foreign investment (of course) and governments not just rolling over whenever a developer makes an application (of course).

But even his figures and quotes show that the problem is one which, not coincidentally, took place on the Howard Government’s watch:

  • “A decade ago, social researcher, Jeanne Strachan, reflected on an emerging concern about housing: “Young couples today are the first generation since the war to face the reality that they often can’t obtain, even with two full-time workers in the house, what their own parents saw as a fair and reasonable reward for their hard work.””

  • “The proportion of Australians under 35 who owned their own house declined from 44 per cent in 2001 to 38 per cent in 2008.”
  • “The proportion of Australians aged 55 to 64 with mortgages has increased from 13 per cent in 1996-97 to 30 per cent in 2007-08.”
  • “there has been a substantial expansion of the spatial gap between the haves and have nots: 27 per cent of dwellings in different population centres were found to be ‘unaffordable’ in 2006, while none were in 2001.”

It is clear that the recent housing price boom started after the Howard Government implemented a first-home-buyers’ grant to pander to the building lobby at the time of the introduction of the GST – something Andrews now concedes makes house prices “spike” – and then went completely out of control when Howard halved capital gains tax and the market was promptly flooded with investors.

Andrews is right that Labor has done nothing to help this – its doubling of the grant did indeed make matters worse, and the grant is still in place. It has also, of course, done nothing to tackle the elephant in the room, ridiculously low CGT – and if it did, naturally the Coalition would scream bloody murder.

But crocodile tears from a Howard government apologist are pretty hard to swallow. Andrews’ solution – releasing more land, but not spending public money on building new public transport infrastructure to service it, and (he implies) cutting immigration in some unspecified way, will not be enough.

Still, at least he – belatedly – recognises that there’s a serious problem. That’s a step.

A more honest fight – Malcolm Fraser leaving the Liberals

I’m on record as opposing the domination in our parliament of the old “broad church” parties – you can’t represent both sides of an argument, and it’s an undemocratic fiction to pretend that you can. That lie underlines the claims to government of both big old parties, and it results in decisions being made based on secret internal votes, not on what the public actually wants.

So in one sense I fully support people like Malcolm Fraser leaving the Liberals, and progressives leaving the Labor Party. It weakens those parties, by decreasing their ability to trick a broad church of voters into voting for them, but it strengthens democracy. If liberals like Fraser were to start a classically liberal party, or join the libertarians or something, then such voters would have a real choice. Just like progressive voters no longer have to vote for the ALP – we can vote for the Greens and know that our votes won’t be being used to support socially conservative policies like opposing marriage equality or locking up refugees in the desert.

And I don’t want Malcolm Fraser joining the Greens just because we agree on those issues, because we fundamentally disagree on issues like public spending, taxation and unions. I want people who agree with him to have the chance to vote for his approach; and I want people who agree with me to be able to vote for my approach. And we don’t need a majority by ourselves – we can form coalitions depending on the issue, and on one issue we might agree with Malcolm’s lot, and on another we might agree with the old ALP lot. The numbers of our respective representatives will decide, entirely democratically, what gets done.

Of course, the problem with doing this is the intrinsic bias in our electoral system against new parties growing. The single-member constituency system pretty much locks in the Labor and Liberal Parties, and until that’s reformed, it is true that if liberals start leaving those major parties and leaving them in the hands of hardline rightwingers, then those hardline rightwingers will get all the benefits of incumbency and voter habit.

So I can understand their reluctance to leave. But there has to come a tipping point, a point at which you realise that the tent is so rotten there’s little to be gained by staying inside it any more. It might not make the fight easier, but it does make it more honest.

RRT sending gay people back to be persecuted for really stupid reasons

Contrary to the utter garbage spouted by dishonest conservatives that the Refugee Review Tribunal is somehow biased towards refugee claims, comes the revelation that it has been treating applications by gay people fleeing persecution with unbelievable contempt:

In one case a gay refugee couple who had experienced violence and harassment in their Bangladeshi homeland were told that they would be safe to return home provided they “conducted themselves in a discreet manner”. The tribunal noted that “men [in Bangladesh] who conform outwardly to social norms, most importantly by marrying and having children, can get away with male to male sex provided it is kept secret”.

And that’s not even the stupidest and most offensive example.

According to the tribunal, all gays, even non-English speaking ones, should instinctively know trivial details of western “gay” pop culture:

In a separate case, the tribunal attempted to determine the veracity of a claimant’s homosexuality by asking him to describe the “art, literature, song lyrics [and] popular cultural icons [that] spoke to him in his isolation from the rest of society”. It was indicated that they were looking for examples such as Madonna, Oscar Wilde, Greco-Roman wrestling and Bette Midler. The court added that the line of questioning was justified and comparable to quizzing Catholics on the Bible.

Time limit for being gay expired:

Another claimant was rejected in 2007 on the grounds that because his first homosexual experiences had occurred while in detention, his homosexuality was not real, but “situational”.

Just man up about it:

That same year, a Fijian homosexual who had been physically and sexually assaulted was ordered home and told to simply ignore the verbal abuse and derogatory treatment he experienced.

What, you’ve only got one example? Might have been a one-off:

Another homosexual who had been arrested and assaulted, first by the Fijian police and then by the militia for having gay sex, was told that while the court accepted his homosexuality and his story, they were not satisfied that he faced any further persecution.

Not promiscuous enough for our help:

Then in 2008 a court expressed concern over the fact that a Pakistani man only had a single “one night stand” to show for the “many months” he had spent in Australia.

Don’t look gay enough:

Still others have been rejected on the basis that because of their conservative dress or appearance, they are likely to be able to “pass” as heterosexual and therefore are not at risk of facing persecution.

Don’t worry, though, it’s not as if these odd examples of a system that has bizarre and unfathomable prejudices about gay people actually caused serious lasting harm to people’s lives and resulted in them being sent back into real danger. No, wait, that’s exactly what happened.

This is a disgrace, and the Minister should be answering serious questions about it in Parliament.

Stephen Conroy reviews the internet; offers Sophie’s Choice

Moving on from his scathing review of Google, Minister for Telling Us What’s What on the Internet Stephen Conroy gives Facebook a well-deserved thrashing in the hope that he can make his filter look decent by comparison:

”What would you prefer,” Senator Conroy said, ”a corporate giant who is answerable to no one and motivated solely by profit making the rules on the internet, or a democratically elected government with all the checks and balances in place?”

If the latter is meant to refer to you, Stephen – neither.

You might be “democratically elected”, but only in a system which is greatly stacked against anyone but the two incumbent old parties. Remember, unless because of this one issue all progressive Australians suddenly abandon a century’s habit of voting for the big old parties and start voting for the Greens, your replacements are likely to be the conservatives – who are just as hostile to civil liberties as you are. Hardly a “check” when both of you are pandering to the same people, and the only party that stands against you on this has to fight its way through a single-member electorate system designed to make it almost impossible for them to win. (Fortunately we can vote for them without helping the conservatives, but it’s realistically a limited “check” until there’s electoral reform.)

And you’re proposing a filter in which the banned list is hidden. How are these “checks and balances” supposed to work?

Your filters block not just “refused classification” content, but material that is lawful in Australia that either hasn’t been and won’t be offered for classification here by people overseas, or that has been wrongly caught in the filter. You’ve never solved the problem of the filter either having a huge number of false positives or picking up hardly anything. You’re now conceding that leaving the dodgy sites up “for a short time” is better for law enforcement to catch the child abusers than just blocking them – but your expensive compromise is still no better than the status quo.

Seriously, Stephen, just because we don’t like Facebook doesn’t mean we’re going to like you. There’s a reason the only people enthusiastically backing you on this are Fundies First.

PS: If Conroy is concerned about privacy protections on Facebook, that is something his government can effectively regulate and enforce. We do have a Privacy Act – if he’s concerned that it doesn’t adequately restrain “corporate giants” then that’s what he should be tackling.

Tanner v Bandt; the (often contradictory) reasons the ALP gives progressives not to vote Green

Having a vigorous debate with an ALP supporter on twitter over whether progressives in Melbourne should vote for the ALP’s Lindsay Tanner or the Greens’ Adam Bandt. It is not a topic that lends itself to 140 characters or less.

My friend has made the following points, common misconceptions that I think deserve a more detailed response than twitter allows:

  • The Greens would need to really need to broaden their appeal to capture more votes

  • It’s all good and well for Greens to “represent” people. But what have Greens ever achieved in single member electorates?
  • If you’re happy for your vote to make no difference, then fine. Lodge your protest vote. But the Greens can’t effect change
  • The Greens will never be in the position of the LibDems because they are a single issue party with a small support base
  • For the ALP to be able to govern, they have to represent both left and right.
  • And just how do the Greens represent their constituency? They have limited resources and no position of legislative power.
  • A local Labor member has much more resources (staff, contacts, money, power) than a local Greens member ever could
  • And a Greens member would likewise have to support policies opposite to her/his constituents’ values
  • You can represent all voters, that’s what governments do.
  • Then why aren’t progressives voting for Greens? Because progressives want politicians who can do something.
  • If the left wanted the Greens to have more seats, they’d vote for them. Fact is, only about 10% of people do so.
  • I agree with a lot of what Rudd has done, and a lot of what Howard did, and disagree too. But appreciate that they did something
  • It’s a useless fight though. Our electoral system will never change to allow greater representation for Greens.
  • But the risk is that if you first preference the Greens in Melbourne, they could win the seat
  • The Greens could totally win Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane. But they’re only ever a chance to win about 5 HoR seats, nothing more
  • What progressive policy has Carles or Organ ever got up?
  • If most of the Greens support is disgruntled ALP voters, then they have a pretty fluctuating support base!
  • I’d like to see a local member that can achieve things beyond a protest vote, which a Green HoR member could never do
  • The ALP is a centrist party, therefore they represent both left and right.
  • Voting Green will not get you “better funded public services, humane treatment of refugees, and marriage equality”
  • Even if all those who agree with the Greens on issues voted Green, it wouldn’t be enough to put them in the BoP in the HoR
  • And the Greens pander to their interest groups too.
  • What signs are there that the increase in the Greens vote has moved the ALP to the left? I think it’s the opposite!
  • And a lot of progressive voters may not agree with the Greens’ interest groups (councils, unions, enviro groups)

To be honest, I find that entire list somewhat depressing, particularly all the parts that essentially boil down to “we must support the status quo because it’s never going to change”.

The fact is, we each have one vote. That single vote doesn’t mean absolute power – but that doesn’t mean it’s useless. It’s worth just as much as every other person’s vote, and you should be extremely cynical and distrusting of anyone telling you that unless you vote for their candidate, it somehow doesn’t count. That it’s merely a “wasted” vote or a “protest” vote. That’s an incredibly arrogant dismissal of your views and your right to be represented in parliament.

It is also true that voting for the Greens and preferencing Labor has some particular benefits for those who’d like to see progressive policies in parliament, even if the Green candidate does not win the seat this time:

  1. The Greens get funding for your first preference, rather than the ALP, which helps them compete with the old parties.

  2. The more votes for the Greens, the more the ALP will realise that it can’t take progressive voters entirely for granted; it’ll have to do something to guard its left flank. So it’ll do something progressive. This might be token, but it’ll be better than Labor just concentrating on pandering to disgruntled Liberal voters.

Voting for the ALP, on the other hand, just tells them they can ignore progressives without consequence.

Naturally the two largest parties have set up a system that benefits them. With single-member lower house electorates it’s incredibly difficult for third parties to grow, unless they’re specifically regionally based (eg the National Party). The Greens could get 30% in every lower house seat and win precisely no representation in the House of Representatives. That’s a fundamentally broken, undemocratic system that deserves reform – and the best way to prevent that reform from happening, is continuing to vote for the major parties. If you want electoral reform, you’re not going to get it by giving your vote to the parties that benefit from the status quo.

And of course they also have much better access to resources – both public money (and benefits from incumbency like taxpayer-funded political advertising) and donor money. My twitter interlocutor thinks that money is somehow used for the benefit of their constituents – I think most of us realise that it’s mainly just spent on political campaigns to get themselves re-elected.

So I concede that the Greens and other third parties are operating from a position of extreme disadvantage in a system designed to maintain the privileges of the powers that be. (And that’s not even mentioning the media bias against them – News Ltd hates the Greens and enjoys telling the most misleading and vicious lies and half-truths about them every election campaign.) But so what? At the very least we can each use our single vote to say that we want something else.

Now, that sounds like I’m advocating “protest votes”, my twitter friend’s put-down for non old-party votes. But I don’t vote for the Greens to protest against any particular party – I vote for the Greens because on almost all the policy issues that are important to me, I know they will advocate for what I believe. I vote FOR them, in other words, and my vote is not defined by the other parties for which I don’t vote. Of course I am careful with my preferences to put the parties I most disagree with at the bottom – the ALP might be a disgrace, but they’re not quite as bad as the mining companies’ lapdogs in parliament, the Liberals. And the Liberals at least have some vaguely liberal people in the ranks who don’t want to persecute people just for being gay, so they’re higher than Fundies First.

But don’t dismiss my vote as a “protest” vote. It’s just as valid as anyone else’s. I might as well call your ALP vote a “protest” vote against representative government.

The fundamental problem with what my friend is arguing is that he thinks that your party being in government is really all that voters want and need. That it doesn’t matter what your side does to get there, because power is justification enough. That it doesn’t matter that to get power Lindsay Tanner regularly votes against progressive policies – the fact that he’s in power means he’s a better representative for progressive Melburnians than the pure but impotent Green candidate could ever be.

Well, first, what’s Lindsay Tanner done for progressive voters in the seat of Melbourne thus far with all that power? Secondly, if the problem is not enough people voting Green, then there’s an obvious solution to that – VOTE GREEN! Thirdly, what kind of democracy is it where my representative regularly takes the other side of an issue to mine? Having the “power” to do something doesn’t help if it’s the opposite of what I want you to do!

ALP voters have no idea what the party is going to do on any particular issue before an election. They don’t get to pick whether in their electorate they have a “left-wing” ALP candidate or a right-wing one. In contrast, Green voters know precisely what their candidate will do on an issue because they’re not trying to pander to people on the far right who fundamentally disagree. I know my vote won’t be used to lock up refugees indefinitely without trial. I know my vote won’t be used to discriminate against gay people in the law. I know my vote won’t be used to give the wealthy tax cuts at the expense of public services.

I know, putting my ballot paper in the box, that I have done my part for a more progressive Australia, and that if the 30% or more other Australians who agree with me do likewise then we’ll be able to pull the Australia back towards the left. I don’t want my party to have 51% of the vote if it means trying to represent both me and the people with whom I fundamentally disagree. As soon as that happens, they’d be representing neither of us.

Democracy is supposed to take place on the floor of parliament, not in party rooms behind closed doors. Parties should be making the decisions about what policies they represent before asking the electorate, and then the ELECTORATE decides which side of an argument should win. Parties having more than 50% of the seats in parliament, and therefore parliament being nothing more than a rubber stamp, is the real threat to democracy.

It’s also a fiction, because 51% of Australians clearly do not agree on the majority of issues: that’s why the major parties are all over the place. Whilst you can “represent” all Australians as a government, you cannot meaningfully represent both left and right at the same time, on the same issue. It’s impossible. Just like voters, you have to choose – and when the old parties are eventually forced to make a decision, they use the power granted them by their voters to do things with which a large proportion of those voters disagree, often profoundly. That’s how major parties “represent” their voters.

Fundamentally, we each only get one vote every three years. We deserve representatives who we know will do what we want for the rest of that time. That’s what I get by voting Green. I wonder how many Labor or Liberal party voters can say the same.

Channel 7 as bad as Akermanis

I agree wholeheartedly with the first part of Imre Salusinzky’s commentary on the David Campbell matter in The Australian:

…this is not a good moment for the media coverage of Macquarie Street either.

What was the public interest in putting to air last night the story of Campbell’s visit to a gay sex club?

It did not involve his ministerial responsibilities and no misbehaviour is alleged to have occurred in parliament or in any government office.

The Seven Network report made much of Campbell’s use of his official car, but ministers have full private use of their cars.

If Campbell’s use of his car was a grounds for resignation, every NSW minister, along with Opposition Leader Barry O’Farrell, should be called upon to quit.

Damn right. That this has been turned into a major story and Campbell has been forced to resign for this (rather than any incompetence in running the NSW transport system, which I’d have thought was his main offence against the public) is indeed an utter disgrace. One day after Jason Akermanis revealed how far the football world was from growing up over people being gay, the national media show they’ve got a long way to go, too.

Including Imre, who completely undermines his excellent points above by concluding:

None of that should diminish either the scale of this disaster for NSW Premier Kristina Keneally, or the degree of Campbell’s misjudgment and stupidity…

What on earth was Campbell thinking when he placed himself in a position where he could be compromised and bring the government into further disrepute? Labor’s attempt to use Keneally’s freshness and appeal to draw a line between its present and its past has just collapsed.

If it has “collapsed”, it’s because they’ve caved like the wusses they are. They should’ve said “so what?” about this thing for all the reasons Imre cited at first. A modern, progressive, fresh NSW government wouldn’t have been phased by a minister coming out of the closet. It’s not like divorces automatically destroy ministers; why should “leading a gay double life”?

The real issues for voters are: how badly has Labor run the state, how badly has Campbell run the transport portfolio? Not “what have its ministers been doing privately in their own time?” (And, if they’re going to abandon Labor – as they probably should – are they sure they want to traipse over to the Liberals?)

UPDATE: Bernard Keane makes a good point in Crikey as to how revelations like this actually harm “the public interest”:

But making politicians and their families fair game will further drain the gene pool of state politics. Now it’s clear to anyone interested in public office that once they pursue it, anything other heterosexual monogamy (and no photos, either, please) could end up leading the evening news bulletins or dominating a front page. Reckon that will encourage more people to run for office?

Then again, the media benefits both ways. The worse the politicians, the more they can whinge about their incompetence.

It’s not merely unrelated to the public interest, it’s directly contrary to it.

Well said.