Saturday, November 29, 2008

The flow of "Boat people" has resumed

Kevvy's new softer policy was noticed immediately. A problem that Howard solved is back again

Indonesian and Australian police have stopped 14 boats laden with asylum seekers from travelling to Australia this year, including at least three in the past six weeks, as people-smuggling activity accelerates across the archipelago. Four boats have made it to Australian waters. On Thursday, one of them, with 12 Sri Lankans aboard, became the first boat in two years to reach the mainland, near Shark Bay in Western Australia. Government sources said the arrivals, who were being transferred to Christmas Island, would have access to Australian law should they claim asylum.

The previously undisclosed figures on people-smuggling disruption, confirmed by Australian Federal Police, highlight the success of the joint operation combating human trafficking. But the data also points to a spike in asylum seekers trying to come to Australia, a politically sensitive issue for the Rudd Government. This year, the Government softened its policy towards illegal immigrants and has allowed the navy - which intercepts boats - to stand down for two months over Christmas due to a manpower shortage.

"We have a lot of problems with this smuggling," Paulus Purwoko, deputy chief of criminal investigations at Indonesian National Police, told the Herald. He said the number of boat crossings to Australia had increased, particularly in recent months. "They transit first through Malaysia, then from Malaysia to Indonesia. We believe it is organised by a syndicate. "When they get to Indonesia, they try to make a deception to the Indonesian police. They throw away their passports. They get a UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] letter of recommendation or ID. Some of them have originals, the rest have fakes."

The Australian Federal Police has played a critical role in combating human trafficking by providing intelligence. But Mr Purwoko said it was difficult to keep tabs on smugglers due to Indonesia's long coastline and because the boats were leaving from different places each time. He expressed grave fears for the asylum seekers, saying the syndicates use the flimsiest of boats to save money, creating huge risks for their human cargo. The worst time to attempt the crossing is over summer, when the seas are roughest. It is also when the navy will be undertaking limited operations.

Indonesian police have made numerous arrests, including Afghan, Pakistani and Indonesian nationals. Many of the asylum seekers are from Afghanistan, reflecting the deteriorating security there and rise in persecution against ethnic minorities as the Taliban exerts more control. Others have come from Iraq, Somalia and Sri Lanka, all countries besieged by violence.

The Herald interviewed two Afghan asylum seekers this week in Jakarta. The men, who cannot be identified because it would jeopardise the safety of their families, said people-smuggling syndicates are paid up to $US12,000 a person. "They promise they will arrive in Australia or some other country like Britain," said one of the men. They said asylum seekers wanted to come to Australia because it was "safe".


Global cooling fails to cool protagonists of global warming

Europe is shivering through an extreme cold snap. One of the coldest winters in the US in more than 100 years is toppling meteorological records by the dozen, and the Arctic ice is expanding. Even Australia has been experiencing unseasonable snow. But the stories about global warming have not stopped, not for a second.

In May last year, The Sydney Morning Herald breathlessly reported that climate change had reduced the Southern Ocean's ability to soak up carbon dioxide, claiming that as a result global warming would accelerate even faster than previously thought. The story was picked up and repeated in a number of different journals around the region. But this week the CSIRO suggested the exact opposite. "The new study suggests that Southern Ocean currents, and therefore the Southern Ocean's ability to soak up carbon dioxide, have not changed in recent decades," it said. This time the story got no coverage in the SMH, and was run on the ABC's website as evidence the Southern Ocean was adapting to climate change.

CSIRO oceanographer Stuart Rintoul, a co-author of the study, said it did not disprove global warming and he did not believe its lack of an alarmist tone was responsible for the poor coverage. But the story is being pointed out as an example of media bias on global warming. Critics argue that the ABC and the Fairfax media are the worst offenders.

ABC board member Keith Windschuttle said yesterday the national broadcaster was in breach of its charter to provide a diversity of views. "The ABC and the Fairfax press rarely provide an opportunity for global warming sceptics to put their view," Mr Windschuttle said. "The science is not settled. "We are seeing an increasing number of people with impeccable scientific backgrounds questioning part or whole of the story. I don't believe the ABC has been reflecting the genuine diversity of the debate. Under its own act, the ABC is required to produce a diversity of views."

Bob Carter of James Cook University, one of the world's best-known climate change sceptics, said there was no doubt Windschuttle was correct. "With very few exceptions, press reporters commenting on global warming are either ignorant of the science matters involved, or wilfully determined to propagate warming hysteria because that fits their personal world view, or are under editorial direction to focus the story around the alarmist headline grab -- and often all three," Professor Carter said.

National Climate Centre former head William Kininmonth said coverage of global warming had been hysterical and was getting worse, with a large public relations effort inundating the media with information from the alarmist side.


Another stupid government computer cock-up

Frustrated Queensland police are turning a blind eye to crime to avoid time-consuming data entry on the force's new $100 million computer system. Queensland Police Union vice-president Ian Leavers said the system turned jobs that usually took an hour into several hours of angst. He said police were growing reluctant to make arrests following the latest phased roll-out of QPRIME, or Queensland Police Records Information Management Exchange. "They are reluctant to make arrests and they're showing a lot more discretion in the arrests they make because QPRIME is so convoluted to navigate," Mr Leavers said. He said minor street offences, some traffic offences and minor property matters were going unchallenged, but not serious offences.

However, Mr Leavers said there had been occasions where offenders were released rather than kept in custody because of the length of time it now took to prepare court summaries. "There was an occasion where two people were arrested on multiple charges. It took six detectives more than six hours to enter the details into QPRIME," he said. "It would have taken even longer to do the summary to go to court the next morning, so basically the suspects were released on bail, rather than kept in custody."

He said jobs could now take up to seven hours to process because of the amount of data entry involved. "It's difficult to navigate because it's not a matter of following steps in a logical manner. You go from A to G then back to A, then C, then H," he said. "It's a nightmare." At most stations at least one officer was responsible for carrying out "compliance checks" on the new system, which took about 90 per cent of their time, Mr Leavers said.

Supplied by a Canadian firm called Niche Technology, QPRIME was promoted to Queensland police as a one-stop database that would reduce the administrative burden for officers. Its implementation began in April 2006, replacing 230 other systems, many of them non-compatible. Mr Leavers said the Canadian police employed civilians to carry out data-entry, freeing up officers to catch criminals.

A Queensland Police Service spokesperson conceded the introduction of QPRIME had created a "challenge for individuals having to learn the new system". "However, the benefits of the QPRIME system into the future far outweigh short-term disaffection by some officers," the spokesperson said. "It is already showing its worth in assisting officers to solve significant crimes by allowing them to access information in a holistic manner."


Workplace law reforms asking for trouble

Kevin Rudd shouts from the rooftops each day that the global financial crisis has changed the world, but the Prime Minister does not believe his own words. A bizarre fate has befallen Australia. At the precise time it faces a global crisis, a business downturn and rising unemployment, the Rudd Government is recasting workplace relations to increase trade union powers, inhibit employment and impose new costs on employers.

Normally this would defy any test of common sense. Indeed, it would seem the essence of irresponsibility. But it has instead won widespread applause, and its architect Julia Gillard has won almost universal acclaim as a political hero. It is as though Australia's workplace relations system exists in some interterrestrial immunity from the rest of the economic world.

The global crisis means everything has changed: the budget goes into deficit, fiscal stimulus replaces fiscal restraint, the Reserve Bank does a volte-face and begins to slash interest rates, and the Government guarantees deposits as Rudd declares the crisis is "sweeping across the world". But standing immovable is Labor's support for greater trade union power, more costly restrictions on employers, a greater role for the revamped industrial relations commission, an effective end to individual statutory contracts, a revival of arbitration, and a sharp weakening of direct employer and non-union employee bargaining.

The new workplace relations model introduced by Gillard is a significant step into the past. It does more than abolish the Howard government's Work Choices model; it goes beyond Work Choices to Howard's 1996 reforms and even further to Keating's 1993 reforms in reshaping the system. It is hard to imagine how its impact will be other than to weaken productivity and employment. The immediate economic impact should be small. But this is major institutional reform with a long fuse. It is designed to endure and, as the unions test the laws and refine their procedures, it will shift workplace relations a long way from their present moorings.

This bill constitutes a defining moment for the Rudd Government, a historic victory for the trade union movement, and Gillard's most important political legacy. Her skills in translating policy from the 2007 election into the Fair Work Bill are impressive. The Opposition under Malcolm Turnbull is cowed. It has no political option, as Turnbull signals, but to give passage to Gillard's bill. The Government has a mandate from the election. Gillard, via her exploitation of the hated Work Choices symbol, has guaranteed the bill's passage and, in the process, provided brilliant cover for the serious regression to workplace re-regulation and greater union powers that the bill implements.

It affirms that the 2007 election was a turning point for Australia. The combined impact of the Labor Government and the global crisis means that Australia is taking a different economic path, defined by a sharp lift in intervention and regulation, the new global trend. In her second-reading speech, Gillard endorsed the 1907 Harvester judgment that enshrined new protectionism and set Australia on its calamitous 20th-century path of wage welfarism at the cost of productivity. Indeed, the language Gillard used is the same as that of Alfred Deakin and Harvester case judge H.B. Higgins a century ago, with her dedication that "the ideal of fairness should lie at the centre of our national life" and, by implication, be enshrined in a regulated industrial system.

Consider the bill. It will have a substantial impact on the resources, retail and services sectors, but less so in manufacturing. First, the new commission, called Fair Work Australia, is more powerful and influential than the former Australian Industrial Relations Commission. The Freehills brief on the new bill says: "FWA will have a much more important role than is currently the case, particularly in setting and adjusting minimum wages, facilitating bargaining for enterprise agreements, the expanded unfair-dismissal jurisdiction and dispute resolution under modern awards and enterprise agreements."

This is what makes the bill so reactionary. It genuflects before the idea of a powerful umpire now made user-friendly, the umpire that the Keating and Howard reforms curtailed. It shows the Rudd Government's true character beneath its modernist disguise. Of course, building up FWA will be presented by the Government as an example of virtue and balance, as a responsible alternative to transferring power direct to the unions.

Second, the effect is to empower unions in enterprise agreements and severely limit genuine non-union agreements. A union needs only one member in a workplace to become a bargaining party. Freehills says: "In effect, this means that true non-union agreements are only possible, (1) in workplaces where there are no union members; or (2) where the union chooses not to be covered by an agreement." IR legal experts report that employers hoping to create non-union enterprise agreements, a cause absolutely fundamental to genuine enterprise bargaining, have only a remote hope.

Third, the new right-of-entry provisions for unions are extraordinary and unacceptable in a democracy. Freehills says that union right of entry to businesses "will be significantly broader". Unions will have right of entry to premises where they have no members, and they will be able to inspect the records of individuals who are non-members where this relates to a suspected contravention. In order to justify right of entry, unions will need only to show the business is engaged in an activity where employees are potential unionists. This has been stamped by cabinet in an insight into its real notion of individual rights.

Fourth, the bargaining process is rewritten to favour unions and to allow FWA to intervene more liberally. This is via the beautiful euphemism of "good faith bargaining" that must apply universally. Understand that these rules are highly prescriptive and instruct employers in detail on how they are to bargain and what information they are to provide. The task of FWA is to enforce these requirements. Freehills says this will result in "significant changes to the ways in which many employers bargain". In a situation where an employer commits multiple breaches of good faith bargaining, a union can seek and obtain from FWA compulsory arbitration of the agreement. In addition, FWA is entitled to decide (only a petition is needed) whether there is majority employee support for bargaining and then order an employer to bargain collectively.

Fifth, an entirely new bargaining system is created for low-paid workers, who are entitled to negotiate across an industry with multiple employers. Gillard says this can relate to child care, cleaning, security and community workers. The bill does not define a low-paid worker, leaving upward flexibility. This stream can be accessed only with FWA's approval, and the bill enables FWA to play a hands-on role. The bill does not allow industrial action across an industry but, critically, it does allow industry-wide arbitration. Freehills' brief says that "in certain circumstances where bargaining breaks down", parties can seek "an arbitrated workplace determination".

"This is the way the unions will move into the low-income workplaces," says Peter Anderson, director of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. "In effect, it will be pattern bargaining. The Government is opening new avenues to multi-employer bargaining with industry-wide arbitration that has not existed before."

Sixth, businesses will be more exposed to union demarcation disputes. Employers will no longer be able to bargain with one union in preference to another. Provided a union has a member in the workplace, the union can apply to be covered by the agreement. Freehills' brief says: "Any attempt to bargain with only one union may well mean that an employer is not bargaining in good faith and so could be subject to bargaining orders." This will become a test of the ACTU's authority to manage its member unions.

Seventh, as is well-known, Labor's aim is a workplace system devoid of individual statutory contracts. This realises a Labor-ACTU objective that originates with the Howard government's 1996 reforms that introduced such contracts. This campaign long predates Work Choices. Individual contracts, while not central to the system, operated for a decade before the 2007 election.

Labor's complaint has never been about unfair Australian Workplace Agreements. It has always been about the principle of AWAs that became law on Coalition-Democrat votes. There is no moral, political or economic case for outlawing the AWA principle. There is only one justification: to protect collective power. Labor and the trade union movement waged a brilliant campaign over three years in the name of fairness to bolster collective power. It is another Work Choices legacy.

The Rudd-Gillard new industrial system seems to have firm foundations. The business groups are divided. The Opposition is unwilling to fight. The 2007 election mandate is legitimate and irresistible. The new structure, however, will prove untenable and the struggle will be resumed at a later date. In the interim, the Government will be responsible for all the consequences of imposing on Australia at a time of unusual financial crisis a workplace relations system that means higher costs, a weaker labour market, a more interventionist umpire and a union movement with greater legal powers.


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