Thursday, November 23, 2006

Profile of a "protester"

Totally useless for anything constructive

A protester accused of a violent outburst during the G20 summit has been refused bail after a magistrate said he would pose an unacceptable risk if freed. Customs checks revealed that Monash University student Akin Sari, 28, held Australian and Turkish citizenship and has passports for both nationalities, Melbourne Magistrates' Court heard.

Mr Sari, a disability pensioner, is charged with affray, riot, criminal damage and theft after a police van was attacked in protests against the G20 summit last Saturday. Acting Det-Sgt Timothy Armstrong told the court that Mr Sari, who has no family in Australia, had been deceptive about the location of his passports and how many of them he has.

Det-Sgt Armstrong said police had received information he was part of a group seen donning white jumpsuits in preparation for the demonstrations and later discarding them, which they cited as indicating the activities were organised. The court heard that a 20-year-old student had agreed to let Mr Sari live at his mother's home with him and his 15-year-old brother if released on bail -- but the mother was overseas and had no idea her home was being offered.

Defence lawyer Jason Gullaci said Mr Sari had admitted protesting but had denied committing acts of violence. He is the only person charged, despite others being clearly seen in media footage to have taken part in the attack.

The court was told the commerce student had done only one semester of his course in the two years he had been enrolled and still had 90 per cent left to complete. Mr Sari suffers from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, has been admitted for psychiatric treatment seven times for problems relating to cannabis use, and was on bail for possessing and using the drug at the time of his arrest.

He denies holding two passports and says he came here in 2001 as a political refugee from Turkey. Magistrate Sarah Dawes said she had concerns about Mr Sari's mental health problems and the accommodation offered was unsuitable, given that Mr Sari had no real ties to Australia. She refused bail and remanded him in custody to return to court in February.


The truth about Australia's latest drought

By economist Ross Gittins. He doesn't even mention global warming, funnily enough

Talking to farmers about drought is like talking to fishers about the one that got away. This one is always much bigger than those that went before. And since the hyperbole merchants told us the drought of 2002 was the biggest in 100 years, this one must be the biggest in 1000 years. Yeah, sure. Thank goodness for the assessments of narky economists, who don't try to humour farmers the way ingratiating politicians and a superlative-seeking media do.

The Reserve Bank offered a dispassionate assessment of the likely severity of the drought in a statement last week. It's pretty bad, but not as cataclysmic as some would have us believe. The severity of droughts can be judged in different ways. One way is to compare the share of the nation's prime agricultural land suffering deficient rainfall this year with previous years. By that measure this one seems less severe than the droughts at the time of Federation, in the 1940s and early 1980s and in 2002. It's significant, however, that this drought comes so hard on the heels of the 2002 drought, thus limiting the opportunities for recovery in growing conditions and water storage. One way to account for this factor is to take for each year the average degree of drought-affected land during the previous five years. Measured this way, the area of land with deficient rainfall in this drought is exceeded only by the drought of the mid-1940s.

A second way of judging the severity of droughts is to look at average rainfall. By that measure, rainfall this year is not as low as in many previous droughts. But, again, if you switch from annual figures to the average rainfall for the previous five years you find that rainfall in the present drought is the lowest on record. So, by one measure at least, you can say it looks like being the worst we've seen. Phew, that's a relief.

This drought is worst in NSW, Victoria and southern Queensland. But some pastoral areas of northern Australia have experienced a significant increase in average rainfall over the past decade, including more recently. (You'll wait a long time before any bushie tells you that.)

Of course, judging the severity of a drought by looking at the lack of rain and the amount of area affected isn't the same as looking at the amount of lost agricultural production. Using the latest forecasts from the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics, the Reserve judges that production of wheat and other cereals may be down by 60 per cent on last year. The biggest fall should be in NSW, though a substantial fall is also expected in the largest wheat-producing state, Western Australia. Wool production is expected to be down 7 per cent, but the production of meat and growing of livestock are likely to be little affected. All told, gross farm product is expected to fall by 20 per cent in 2006-07 compared with last financial year. So, in terms of impact on rural production, this drought is likely to be less severe than the 2002 drought, which saw farm product fall by 26 per cent.

Remember, however, that agriculture accounts for less than 3 per cent of total gross domestic product these days. So a 20 per cent fall in 3 per cent of the economy amounts to a subtraction of about 0.5 percentage points from growth in GDP. Of course, that's just the direct effect of the drought. What about the indirect effects of farmers' reduced incomes and spending on the rest of the economy? Farmers hate it when hard-nosed economists remind starry-eyed city slickers that, thanks to the huge growth in the services sector over the past 30 years, agriculture is now such a small part of the economy (about a quarter the size of our small manufacturing sector). So rural lobbyists like to claim that agriculture has a big "multiplier effect" through the rest of the economy. I think I've heard it claimed that this takes the sector to the equivalent of 12 per cent of the economy. Rubbish. All spending has a multiplier effect through the economy, not just spending by farmers. So this is a trick everyone can play. And if each industry similarly estimated its overall effect on the economy, the figures they gave would total way more than 100 per cent of GDP.

No. The Reserve Bank estimates the drought's direct effect in reducing GDP growth by 0.5 percentage points rises to 0.75 percentage points when you include the indirect effect on other parts of the economy. When you remember that real GDP has grown at an average rate of about 3.5 per cent a year, that loss is significant but not the end of the world.

The drought's likely effect on the economy's growth isn't the same thing as its effect on the incomes of farmers, of course. After allowing for inflation, net farm incomes are expected to decline substantially to around their lowest level in more than a decade. But for many farmers there'll be a saver. The Federal Government runs a farm management deposit scheme where farmers can reduce their income tax in good years by depositing some of their income. They then withdraw that money in bad years, pay tax on it and spend it. The amount farmers have put away in this scheme has grown strongly since 1999 and is now about $2.5 billion, almost the highest it's been. Why have our poor, struggling farmers been able to stash away so much? Because grain growers did so well from the large harvests of recent years, while beef producers did well from the earlier strength in cattle prices.

Another line we are hearing in the combined efforts of farmers, politicians and the media to give city slickers an exaggerated impression of the effects of the drought is that we're about to see big increases in food prices. Nonsense. The effect on prices will be small. Why? Because, for instance, the cost of flour accounts for only a small part of the retail price of bread. And because, though grain prices rise during a drought, meat prices usually fall as more animals are sent to be slaughtered. I'd be more sympathetic if there weren't so many people laying it on too thick.


The Federal Government is throwing tax-dollars at the climate change "non-problem" while ignoring Australia's Muslim problem

In Brendan Behan's words: "Jasus, and it's a quare world." While doing almost nothing about the greatest problem now threatening Australia's future, the federal Government is throwing tax dollars (though less than the subsidy scroungers want) at a non-problem. I refer, respectively, to Australia's Muslim problem and the climate change non-problem.

Our media's performance on these two matters, particularly the ABC-SBS duo and the Fairfax broadsheets, has been quite remarkable. Taj Din al-Hilali's recent outrageous comments - comparing immodestly dressed women to meat left out for cats, and blaming them for sexual assaults - have been treated (though not by The Australian) as something to be swept quickly under the carpet. Indeed, The Age's front page effectively ignored the story throughout thecontroversy. Contrast that with the media frenzy over the apocalyptic Stern report on climate change, concerning the so-called pollution of our atmosphere by a gas, carbon dioxide, that's an essential building block for all plant life.

We have endured widespread exhortations, from the over-loquacious Australian Federal Police Commissioner to the foolish Anglican Archbishop of Perth, not to over-react to Hilali's medieval diatribe about Western women. Meanwhile, discussion of climate change has degenerated from mild inanity into quasi-religious hysteria, with assorted opinion-formers demanding that we "get serious" in undermining Australia's main energy-producing and energy-using industries.

In short, we should remain officially complacent about the most serious threat to our future, namely the fundamental incompatibility of Islam with Western society, while adopting anti-economic growth policies to address a problem that exists chiefly in the fevered minds of its UN and Green proponents. (I set aside our sad federal Environment Minister Ian Campbell, who had been captured by his bureaucrats within a week of taking office.)

Corporate rent seekers also are angling for governmental subsidies for their economically hopeless wind farms, solar power toys and carbon sequestration follies. The kindest explanation for these people's views is that they are (as I think) merely another bunch of would-be corporate welfare dependants, much like the manufacturers before the Hawke government (chiefly) got rid of their protective tariff rackets.

As to the real problem, if Hilali's remarks have finally set alarm bells ringing in Canberra, there is little sign of it. And even the Melbourne Herald Sun's outstanding commentator Andrew Bolt, while excoriating the mufti's maunderings, has proposed no specific policies to avert the threatening iceberg of which Hilali merely represents the tip.

But if the Government is guilty of a non-response to the real problem, the Opposition is guilty of a stupid response to the non-problem. It is demanding that Australia sign up to an international treaty (the Kyoto Protocol) that - like most things associated with the UN - has already demonstrably failed.

Meanwhile, the only semblance of government action on our Muslim problem has been the discussion paper on a possible formal test for citizenship issued in September by the parliamentary secretary to the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, Andrew Robb. I don't wish to be too hard on Robb - after all, he reports to Amanda Vanstone, our worst Immigration Minister since Ian Macphee, and his paper at least puts the topic on the public agenda.

Since, however, it never states the problem to which it is really addressed - namely, that we are now at war with international Islamist terrorism, and that therefore our Muslim community, collectively considered, now regrettably constitutes a potential threat that renders a citizenship test not only appropriate but essential - we cannot be hopeful of the outcome even on this limited issue.

Among all the climate change clap-trap there are at least occasional grounds for laughter. When an honest former business leader, John Ralph, said recently that "climate change might be occurring naturally, rather than being primarily driven by human activities", federal Treasurer Peter Costello quickly rebuked him, saying that he "accepted the scientific evidence" to the contrary. This was laughably reminiscent of another bandwagon (the republic) on to which he climbed 10 years ago when he saw it also as a winner that would undermine John Howard.

Hilarious though the thought may be of Costello making an informed judgment about the science of climate change, there is nothing remotely funny about dealing with the clash between Islam and Western modernity, not to mention (as the recent British MI5 revelations underline) the real and growing problem of Islamist terrorism. The Government would do well to start reacting accordingly.


State-sponsored murder in NSW

An inquest will ask why authorities put a young prisoner in the same jail cell as a psychotic inmate, who within hours kicked him to death. NSW Supreme Court Justice Anthony Whealy today recommended an urgent public inquiry be relaunched into the death of Craig Anthony Behr.

Mr Behr, 24, was in March 2004 placed in a cell with Michael Alan Heatley, a chronically psychotic prisoner who sniffed, smoked and drank his dead father's ashes, and who believed he was the racehorse, Phar Lap. Twice acquitted for armed robbery on the grounds of mental illness, Heatley was an inmate of Sydney's Long Bay prison hospital. He had been placed in solitary lockdown because he was expressing homicidal urges two days earlier, and begged prison officers not to put Mr Behr in his cell. One hour later Mr Behr, 24, had been kicked to death.

Heatley, 30, who pleaded guilty to manslaughter, was today sentenced to a maximum 18 years prison for the "violent and brutal'' attack, and an unrelated armed robbery.

Justice Whealy recommended an urgent public inquiry be reopened into the failings of the Department of Corrective Services which contributed to the death of Mr Behr, who was serving seven years for sexual assault and aggravated break and enter. "A significant tragic factor in this case ... is that the Corrective Services Department permitted the deceased to be placed in the cell of a man who was in the implacable grip of an urge to kill someone,'' Justice Whealy said, in sentencing Heatley. "I am satisfied that the placement of Mr Behr in the offender's cell occurred as a consequence of both systemic and individual failures on the part of some prison officers to adhere to proper practices and procedures,'' he said. "Had those practices and procedures been followed ... Mr Behr would not have died.''

A coronial inquest into Mr Behr's death was terminated on February 25, 2005, pending the criminal proceedings. Acting state coroner, Jacqueline Milledge, at the time foreshadowed a possible second inquest, following the Supreme Court proceedings. The Attorney-General's department today said the inquest would be reopened once Heatley's 28-day appeal period had lapsed. "If there's no appeal, they will reopen the inquest,'' a spokesman said.

Justice Whealy said there was a significant likelihood some witnesses had lied or deliberately withheld information, and the public deserved an "independent and free-ranging inquiry''. [In other words, the prison guards did it deliberately because of animus against the deceased -- who was undoubtedly scum] "I would hope that this recommendation falls upon receptive ears, even though its consequences may be unpleasant,'' he said.

Corrective services today issued a statement in support of reopening the inquest, and said it would cooperate fully. "The department acknowledges that the correctional system is not the ideal place for people suffering from mental illness,'' the statement said. The hospital where Mr Behr died had since been closed, and a new 135-bed forensic facility was under construction, the department said. All correctional officers who managed mentally ill prisoners also now received specialist training.

Outside court, Mr Behr's mother, Janet, said the family still wanted answers. "You can be assured the Department of Corrective Services will have to answer and pay for what they've done because of their negligence in their duty of care,'' she said. Heatley will serve a four-year fixed sentence for armed robbery, as well as a minimum eight years for manslaughter. He will be eligible for parole in March 2016.


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