Wednesday, December 27, 2006


Police in Melbourne fear the emergence of militant street gangs of young African refugees who have served in militia groups in their war-ravaged homelands. A growing gangster mentality among young African men is worrying community leaders, who blame boredom, unemployment and drugs for turning young immigrants living in Melbourne's inner north towards violence and crime. Police sources have told The Australian that while gang-related activity had not reached epidemic proportions, "it is a serious concern".

Young African leader Ahmed Dini said some Somali, Sudanese and Eritrean men, predominantly aged between 16 and 25, felt disconnected from mainstream society and were either forming or joining ethnic groups for protection and also for a sense of belonging. He said they mainly lived in housing commission estates in the city's inner north - Flemington, Ascotvale and north Melbourne - and some had trained with heavy-duty military weapons while they were serving in militias overseas. "Some of them have used rocket launchers and grenades," said Mr Dini, who is chairman of the community-based youth network Saygo.

He said the migrants were haunted by childhood images of killings, torture and rape, and were constantly on edge. "Violence is not something new for these young people," he said. "And sometimes memories trigger them to do stupid things. "Sometimes they do some bad things ... like probably pick on other people, other groups, pick fights (with other ethnic groups). "They pick fights with Turkish, Lebanese, even with the African communities. "You have the Somalians from Flemington usually pick on Somalians from Carlton, so it's like a territorial kind of thing."

Mr Dini said some of the young men wielded baseball bats during the brawls. "They do have bats and stuff like that, and when they do hear there's a fight they turn up with their bats." He said while he was not aware of any structured African community gangs in the city's inner north, he was aware young Sudanese men from the western suburbs were becoming more established and organised in their gang activities.

But a police source told The Australian the street gangs were not usually structured or organised. "There isn't necessarily a leader and so on." The source said the hierarchy and leadership often comes into play when the gang is faced with some kind of adversity such as a territorial brawl. Mr Dini, who set up Saygo with 12 other young African leaders in September to tackle unemployment, education and criminal issues being faced by his community, said the state and local governments were largely responsible for the street gangs. This was because they had for years ignored the problems of unemployment and the lack of facilities, failing to devote enough resources and initiatives towards alternative activities. "There's no service-providers that help out the young people in the area," he said. "And the population of the youth is growing. And the more boys you have doing nothing, just hanging out, the more likely you're going to have problems that are going to arise."

Mr Dini warned that gang and crime-related problems within the African communities would eventually lead to "race riots" similar to those in France if governments continued to ignore the problem. "It could lead to deaths," he said.


"Civil liberties" perversions

Last week the Victorian Court of Appeal ordered a retrial of Jack Thomas on terror charges. The judges found the interview Thomas gave to ABC television's Four Corners could be used in evidence, as it potentially incriminated him. But here's the bizarre part. A number of civil libertarians were reported as being appalled at the ABC for showing the interview. "They must have known they shouldn't do it," said a past president of Liberty Victoria.

In reading this reaction I was reminded of the contrary opinions of the great English legal and moral philosopher Jeremy Bentham. This is the man who was largely responsible for the first Reform Bill of 1832 that vastly expanded the voting system; Bentham lobbied for such a broadening of the democratic base for many years. He also pushed for prison reform and was a progenitor of the John Howard Society (that's the prison reform group named after the long-dead Brit, not a fan club of the Prime Minister).

Bentham, who lived from 1748 to 1832, also played an important role in advancing the cause of women's voting rights. But my point is only this: Bentham had impeccable 18th-century reformist credentials in all sorts of important areas that affected real people. And yet he had a near pathological dislike, indeed loathing, of what we today would call civil libertarians.

Here's how Bentham saw it. This crowd of people forget that criminal trials are basically about getting at the truth. What is needed is a way to determine if an accused person actually did what the police are accusing him of. So relevance and truth are the key factors in any set of procedures. Yes, we'd all be better off opting to have a system that deliberately lets 10 or even 100 guilty persons go free rather than convicting one innocent person. That's why, contrary to the way newspapers often portray things, a not-guilty verdict does not in any way equate to an innocent verdict. Many guilty people are acquitted. It's the price we all willingly pay to keep the innocent out of jail, as much as is practically possible. But notice how you can admit all that and still believe that the point of a criminal procedure system is basically to find out the truth. That's certainly how Bentham saw it.

The problem with the civil libertarian mind-set is that any desire to find the truth -- to convict people who actually did what they are accused of -- seems to get brushed aside in the headlong rush after moral abstractions. Bentham caustically portrayed such thinking as a sort of fox-hunting game. Their goal, he said, was to ensure convicting accused criminals resembled a jolly good day of hunting. That means you can't catch too many. You'll need lots of irrelevant rules which will be sure to trip up the police on occasion, to make sure a few foxes get away. And you want to make sure these rules don't have anything much to do with determining guilt or innocence. The goal is always to keep the game nice and entertaining, with a fox here and there slipping away for the sake of the game itself.

Bentham went further. He saw the mind-set that, say, would exclude evidence when it clearly and undoubtedly points to guilt as part of a typical lawyer's world view, one where a person can be earning a huge salary and yet see himself as doing God's work. It's fox-hunting without any blood on one's hands; nice work if you can get it.

Now let's go back to Thomas. He either did or did not accept cash from al-Qa'ida. If he did not, or if the jury has a reasonable doubt he did not, then he should be acquitted. But if it is clear that Thomas did what he is accused of, then how, precisely, is there any injustice done if this is proved through his own words on an interview he freely gave to the ABC?

There is no obvious rationale for saying our criminal procedures should ensure the stupid don't get convicted. Nor are there any immediate grounds Lfor saying that the press should cover up admissions. Even if the ABC had promised not to show the interview until after the trial, I cannot see why that should stop the police from forcing the public broadcaster to hand over the tapes of the interview.

Confessions are sometimes suspect because we know as a matter of experience that innocent people sometimes confess to things they did not do. In other words, we're worried about the truth of the confession and fear coercion and pressure. We only should accept a confession after it's plain the confessor is telling the truth. But those civil libertarians last week weren't worried about truth. They were worried about the conduct of the ABC (not an obvious candidate for Right-wing monster organisation, truth be told). And they worried about Thomas's legal representation. You see, a smart person wouldn't have admitted anything, and so a smart lawyer would have ensured he shut up.

And so on and so forth. Not one iota of concern for whether the system works reasonably well in getting at the truth and actually takes off the streets dangerous people who do bad things: some of whom, luckily for all of us, are just plain dumb. Maybe Liberty Victoria should have its members read a little Bentham.


What Greenie dam-hatred has achieved in Australia

Water restrictions have cut consumption by Australian households to 1950s levels, but a chronic failure by state governments to invest in infrastructure will force further crackdowns on use in 2007 unless the nation receives significant rain.

Research by national water utilities has found water consumption per head has been driven down to 1950s levels by the tough restrictions. Up to 20 per cent of the cuts in household consumption were reported since 2001, when severe restrictions were implemented as rainfall in the catchment areas began to drop. This is despite a doubling in the average size of houses, with more bathrooms and increased numbers of swimming pools.

According to Water Services Australia, in 1955-56 Sydneysiders used 343 litresper person per day, while Melburnians used 330L. In 2005-06, people in Sydney used slightly less -- 339L per person per day -- while Melbourne residents used 331L. Usage peaked at about 500L in the 1980s. But in the same period, the populations of the cities on the eastern seaboard have more than doubled while investment in water infrastructure has failed to keep pace.

After a post-war boom in developing new dams and water storage, investment in new dams has fallen sharply in the past decade, with little investment in alternative technologies such as recycling and desalination -- with the exception of Perth. The water spokesman for the Australian Council for Infrastructure Development, Graham Dooley, said Australia had enough water but was unable to manage it because of chronic infrastructure failures. "We have a supply crisis and we have an infrastructure crisis. We don't actually have a water crisis," he said. "It's in the wrong place and the wrong quality. It's either seawater or stormwater or sewage, not drinking water." The problem, he said, was under-investment in infrastructure. "You can solve all of these problems by being cleverer."

State governments have continued to take the profits from their water utilities rather than reinvesting in new infrastructure, taking $659 million in 2004/05 from urban water authorities. A report by Marsden Jacob Associates found the capital city water businesses had not increased capital expenditure significantly "and certainly not increased it to the levels required to have avoided the current shortfall in supply". Instead, the water authorities have relied on increasingly severe restrictions to manage supply, as dams fall to unprecedented lows. Only Hobart and Darwin are exempt from the national crisis. Sydney's Warragamba dam is at an unprecedented low of 36.7per cent. Only huge transfers of water from the Shoalhaven system this year have kept the Warragamba above the desalination trigger point of 30 per cent.

Southeast Queensland's Wivenhoe dam is in a worse position, and is now 23 per cent of capacity. "We've never seen it this low in all the time we've been coming here," Ipswich resident Steven Ryder said during a visit with his wife Carla. Melbourne's Thompson dam is at 40 per cent. The city will get more severe restrictions on January 1, but what worries water managers is the possibility of bushfire in the dam's catchment. Mr Dooley said Adelaide had even more severe problems because of its heavy reliance on dwindling inflows to the Murray River for water supplies. "Adelaide is basically stuffed," he said. "Adelaide has no option but to recycle or desalinate." Mr Dooley said Perth was the only city to have a thorough water strategy, although its dams received only a third of the inflows they got before 1974. "They have done everything possible, and even so they haven't got enough, and that is because it is the best example in the world of climate change," he said.

Water Services Association chief Ross Young said bringing back consumption to 1950 levels "is an outstanding achievement if you compare it to electricity, gas or ... petrol, which have all risen substantially over that period".


Education bureaucrats try to stymie religion classes

A controversial new religious instruction form that was to be completed by parents of Queensland state school students next year has been pulped. Education Minister Rod Welford has intervened to ditch the form amid accusations it was being used by the Government to drive faith-based teachings out of state schools by stealth. The highly ambiguous form - drafted by Education Queensland bureaucrats - appears to make parents "opt in" to their religion of choice. This comes despite the Government insisting it would maintain the long-standing "opt out" policy following outrage from church leaders at a planned overhaul of religious education earlier this year.

Mr Welford conceded the new form was "all over the shop" and needed changing. "Obviously it is a bit unclear and I have asked the department to redraft the form so it is consistent with our policy," the Minister said.

The decision to ditch the form came after concerns were raised with The Courier-Mail by one of Queensland's veteran religious instruction teachers. Wondai Baptist Church reverend John Lane said the Government was trying to achieve through policy what it could not through legislation. "I think they are trying to make it as difficult as possible for churches to continue with religious education," Rev Lane said. "I think, and I may be wrong here, that there is a whole anti-religion push behind this." Rev Lane, who has taught in schools for 36 years, said he was determined to continue despite having to submit a detailed curriculum for the first time.

The template form, which was sent to some schools in November, was to be completed by parents of all new enrolments. It asked parents to agree to send their child to religious education classes and gave them the option of the faith of their choice, if available. It gave parents the option to withdraw, but only children who identified with a religion being offered would be sent to the classes if the form was not completed.

Coalition education spokesman Stuart Copeland said the Government had been "caught out". "It certainly looks like they were trying to confuse the issue and hope RE falls over," he said. However, Mr Welford said parents were supposed to be told about their ability to withdraw children from RE, but this had not been happening in many schools. He said parents would receive a new form through the school which would clarify that they could withdraw their child from RE with a written request. "All children will stay in religious instruction unless the parent requests for them to be withdrawn," Mr Welford said.


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