Tuesday, March 24, 2009


In his latest offering, conservative Australian cartoonist ZEG notes the bikie brawl at Sydney airport and is disturbed at the lack of security it reveals

Snooty Australians diss New Zealand

If an inability to buy a copy of "The Age" (Australia's most Leftist major newspaper) is a problem, I think that tells you all you need to know about the complainers. I rather think that an inability to buy a copy of "The Age" is a mark in New Zealand's favour. And why can't they read "The Age" online, anyway? Are they that dumb? I suspect that they have a poor opinion of New Zealand because their arrogance has made them unpopular. When I was in New Zealand I found it to be a very pleasant and remarkably scenic place with excellent wines. And the Kiwis have just got rid of their destructive Leftist government -- which puts them one ahead of Australia

AN Australian couple has upset Kiwis with an online expat guide which warns that Auckland is a "horrible soulless city" and its inhabitants are "hobbits" who cannot dress properly. The anonymous duo have used their website, fushnchups.co.nz, to attack their new home across the Tasman, rubbishing everything from the country's beer to its major cities and lack of worldliness.

"I was horrified that I couldn't buy a copy of The Age, even in the major bookstores. True story," wrote the bloggers, a professional couple in their late 20s.

They sum up the largest city, Auckland, as horrible and soulless, a comment the city's tourism CEO Graeme Osborne took exception to. "Maybe they're just envious that Auckland recently rated ahead of every Australian city as a tourist destination," Osborne said. "They should get in touch with me personally and I guarantee I'll change their impression."

The couple also trashed Rotorua, a popular tourist destination famed for it sulfuric activity, saying it "absolutely stinks". "It smells like the whole town let rip at once," they say on the site, set up as a guide for Australians contemplating making a move over the ditch. "Can blokes (in Rotorua) get away with letting out a silent-but-deadly in bed next to the missus?" they ask. "How do people tell when their eggs have gone off?"

Ruth Crampton from Destination Rotorua said the Aussie bloggers had missed the point. "It's the smell that makes us special," Crampton said. "And didn't they read that scientists have discovered the gas which causes smell is great for men's sexual arousal and prowess? "That's a reason to visit."

The New Zealand beer brewery, DB, took exception to an open letter on the site which says the national brew is lacking in hops. "They can't be serious," a DB spokeswoman said. "We've got some of the best beer in the world."

The bloggers also waded into touchy tran-Tasman waters, laying claim to pavlova and Phar Lap, but adding "you can have Russell Crowe".

Professor Philippa Mein Smith, of the NZ Australia Connections Research Centre at the University of Canterbury, said the comments were "pathetically rude" and did nothing to help the two countries relate. Picking up that the young pair were from Tasmania, she decided to give some back. "Isn't Tasmania the butt of all the jokes over there?" Prof Mein Smith said. "They're just attacking us because they themselves are at the bottom of the pecking order back home." [Tasmania is known as the home of ABC, where A stands for apples, B stands for beer and C stands for something I had better not utter. It refers to Tasmania's reputation for incest]


Setback for Australia's Gestapo

iiNet quits Government web filter trials. "Gestapo" is an abbreviation for "Geheime Staatspolizei" or "Secret State Police". Judge for yourself whether it fits

AUSTRALIA'S third largest internet service provider (ISP) has pulled out of the Government's web filtering trials, saying the plan is "no longer just about stopping child porn".

The Government's plan involves a nation-wide filter that stops "unwanted material" from appearing on Australian user's computer screens. iiNet says the ambiguity of "unwanted material" is what caused it to pull out of the trials. “We are not able to reconcile participation in the trial with our corporate social responsibility, our customer service objectives and our public position on censorship,” iiNet managing director Michael Malone said in a statement.

“It became increasingly clear that the trial was not simply about restricting child pornography or other such illegal material, but a much wider range of issues including what the Government simply describes as 'unwanted material' without an explanation of what that includes."

Shadow Minister for Communications Senator Nick Minchin said the iiNET withdrawal cast further doubt over the internet filtering trials. “This decision by iiNet casts further doubt over the veracity and credibility of these trials and raises more questions about the Rudd Government’s unpopular mandatory filtering policy,” Senator Minchin said. “While the Government has selected six ISPs to take part in the first stage of the trial, I am advised that none of them, other than Webshield, which already offers its customers an ISP-level filtering option are in a position to even yet start.

“The onus is squarely on Communications Minister Senator Conroy to demonstrate what he is proposing is even technically feasible and while the Coalition is prepared to examine any trial results that are produced, he must commit to an independent audit of any results to ensure they are credible. Without the involvement of the nation’s three largest ISPs it is difficult to see how any meaningful results will be produced," he said.

Earlier this year, the Government snubbed larger ISPs Optus and iiNet when announcing participants for its first round of live trials, instead favouring a handful of small ISPs. One of them, Primus, has since compared compulsory web filtering to China.

Optus will still seek to participate in the second round of trials, according to ZDNet.com.au.

iiNet had stated it would take part in the trials to prove that an ISP-level web filter won't work. “Everyone is repulsed by, and opposed to, child pornography but this trial and policy is not the solution or even about that." “In reality, the vast majority of online child pornography activity does not appear on public websites but is distributed over peer-to-peer networks which are not and cannot be captured by this trial or policy.”

The web filter is based on blacklist of websites administered by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA). Last week, a list of websites purporting to be ACMA's blacklist was leaked online, containing alleged links to child porn as well as more common sites such as YouTube, Wikipedia, and small businesses.

Geheimepolizist Conroy denied the leaked list was the same as ACMA's, but said it contained "some common URLs".


Australia: State of secrecy

THE media in the US enjoys an incredible amount of freedom, at least compared with the media in Australia. For example, the media in the US can tell you exactly what Barack Obama did on his first full day in the White House. He spent the first 10 minutes alone in the Oval Office in quiet contemplation. During that time, he read a letter that former president George W. Bush had left on the desk for him. At 9.10am, wife Michelle popped in. Together they went to prayers, then, on his return to the Oval Office, Barack Obama issued his first memo as President. The topic? Transparency in government.

In that memo, widely available online, Obama instructed the heads of all the various government agencies he controls to be open and honest with the American people. The presumption, he said, should be "in favour of disclosure". To that end, department heads should renew their commitment to freedom of information law and take "affirmative steps to make information public". Moreover, they should use modern technology (that is, the internet) to inform citizens about what is known and done by their Government.

Now, it's all very well for Obama to issue such a memo on day one in office. Time will tell how transparent his administration actually is, but it's interesting to compare that memo from Obama's first full day in office with the Rudd Government's progress on transparency in government.

When Labor was in Opposition in Australia, it too promised a "sunlight" policy on information held by government. It pledged changes to freedom of information laws that would make so many more documents accessible, in a reasonable time frame and at a sensible fee, to anybody who wanted to seethem. It promised protection for whistleblowers, who could include people such as the nurse who came forward and exposed the horror at the heart of the Bundaberg hospital scandal; and it promised shield protection for journalists such as the Herald Sun's top reporters, Gerard McManus and Michael Harvey, who were fined $7000 each and given criminal records for refusing to reveal their sources on a story about lax airport security that was correct and in the public interest.

These changes are necessary and overdue, and not just because the media says so. The ordinary member of the public probably has no idea how difficult it is to get even the simplest information out of government.

Under existing law and protocol, anybody employed by the government - that can mean a nurse, a police officer or a bus driver - is threatened with disciplinary action if they speak to the media.

It's not possible for journalists to call state schools and ask principals what they think about a state government plan to tackle bullying. It's not possible to call social workers in indigenous communities to ask them whether new rules on the supply of petrol have helped or harmed the young. All must go through the central press office: in other words, through government.

In recent weeks, the Rudd Government has busily been insisting that it has, or is, delivering on its promise to make government more transparent. Last Friday, for example, Attorney-General Robert McClelland congratulated himself for introducing to parliament the Evidence Amendment (Journalists' Privilege) Bill 2009, otherwise known as the Government's shield laws for journalists.

McClelland says the law will provide "much-needed protection for journalists", but it won't do any such thing. It won't give a journalist the right to protect their source and it won't place the onus on the government (or any other agency) to explain why a source should be exposed.

All the change will do is give judges some discretion when dealing with journalists who won't reveal their source.

How will this change compare with law in other democracies? The Australian National University's leading student of shield laws, Lorraine Ingham, last year compared Australian laws with legislation in New Zealand, Britain and the US. She says Australia continues to "lag well behind its foreign counterparts" because there is "no presumption in Australia that a journalist need not reveal their source" and the new legislation will not change that.

Moreover, there is nothing in the Australian amendment about public interest or about the right of the people to a free flow of information, both of which are features of the US and the NZ laws.

According to Ingham, it should be incumbent on the Australian government, or whatever other party is seeking disclosure, to explain why the identity of the source is a matter of public interest and the reason can't be: "Because we want to charge them with the offence of leaking."

McClelland says that, under his amendments, judges will have to consider "the potential harm disclosure of identity could cause both the source and the journalist".

With respect, the fact journalist or source may come to harm if their identity is revealed is hardly the point. The point should be: Is this information in the public interest? If so, it's right and proper that it's before the public.

The protection of one's source is of paramount importance to journalists. This was proven in 1995, when The Australian's editor, Paul Whittaker, who was working as an investigative reporter for Brisbane's The Courier-Mail, refused to answer 430 questions at a commission of inquiry about the source behind a story about former Labor senator Graham Richardson. The inquiry was set up to determine who had leaked to Whittaker and Marian Wilkinson, then a reporter at The Australian, information about a politically sensitive investigation into allegations of corruption concerning Richardson. Richardson was accused of being supplied with prostitutes by Gold Coast businessmen in exchange for making favourable representations on their behalf to a US defence contractor. Whittaker's home was raided and he was threatened with being jailed indefinitely for contempt, but he held firm and 14 years later he shows no sign of buckling. He has never revealed his source.

A coalition of media organisations, formed last May under the banner of Australia's Right to Know, has welcomed the planned changes, saying the amendments, if passed, will at least mean that journalists won't "automatically face conviction or jail" if they refuse to disclose the identity of a source.

McClelland says the new law should be read in conjunction with the Government's planned laws to protect whistleblowers, which are likely to be introduced later this year.

The whistleblower laws are likely to be informed by the findings of a legal and constitutional affairs committee headed by Mark Dreyfus QC. That committee suggests that whistleblowers first take their concerns to a superior of some kind (and, in the process, probably wreck their career); and, if that doesn't work, they should complain to an external body such as the Commonwealth Ombudsman (a process that is itself likely to be a bureaucratic nightmare, befouled by politics). If - or when - that fails, the whistleblower must wait a reasonable period (whatever that may mean) before taking their concerns to journalists, and then only if the matter concerns "an immediate and serious threat to public health and safety".

According to Dreyfus, these changes would "transform the culture of the public service and protect whistleblowers from reprisals".

In fact, whistleblowers would still have to jump through hoops and lawyers would have a field day trying to decide what constitutes an immediate and serious threat.

This newspaper wonders: would airport security qualify? After all, it was The Australian that in 2005 published details from an internal Customs report that revealed lax security and drug-smuggling rings at several airports, leaving the country vulnerable to terrorism. The report had been ignored by internal officials for two years before it eventually was leaked to the newspaper. No journalist was dragged to court but Customs official Allan Kessing was charged, convicted and sentenced to nine months' jail, later suspended. He lost his job and is fighting an appeal, which has cost him his savings, all while protesting his innocence. The Australian has never given up its source. Its view issimple: the story was correct and in the publicinterest, and therefore was published.

University of Queensland business school lecturer Bill De Maria has described the planned reform of whistleblower law as "mean and narrow in its vision" and "embarrassingly conservative in its proposals". "It won't give protection to ordinary members of the public wishing to report instances of commonwealth wrongdoing," he says. "It won't give protection to people fed up with bureaucratic obstruction and harassment who go to the media."

Australian Press Council chairman Ken McKinnon agrees, saying: "The future situation will be hardly better than it is today. Whistleblowers know that their best and quickest chance of rectifying corruption, waste and general governmental incompetence is to go directly to the press."

Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance federal secretary Christopher Warren says: "This Government made some very positive noises in Opposition. There are some signs that it has a positive attitude to some of these issues, but we'd like it to go a lot further. Paying lip-service is not enough. It demands national leadership, practical legislation and committed campaigning. It also demands a change in culture, from that of secrecy to one of transparency and openness."

Nobody is pretending the news media always gets the balance right when it comes to the release of information. As John Hartigan, chairman and chief executive of News Limited (publisher of The Australian), said in one of his many speeches on this topic: "Certainly our media is imperfect and its journalism sometimes flawed. The media, like most industries, has room for improvement."

Hartigan's point, however, is that media "remains our primary source of information" about politicians and government, and "the only one that can challenge that information, to test that it's right ... to unearth the things they're hiding, tell everyone what's really going on."

That is why members of the Right to Know coalition - Fairfax, the ABC, SBS, the commercial television networks and News Limited - remain united on the subject of media freedom. Today this group will host a forum on the Right to Know.

Of particular interest will be Special Minister of State John Faulkner, who is expected to outline details of the freedom of information reforms. He has hinted that a change in culture is necessary. That's both true and overdue.


Fraudulent immigration "cut"

Leftists love immigration because it will upset the "complacency" (read "comfort") of ordinary folk. Anything that upsets the status quo is good. Being happy with how things are is forbidden. So Australia's Leftist government has fostered a big rise in immigration -- despite the fact that its unionist backers are very dubious about it

CONGRATULATIONS to Immigration Minister Chris Evans for the best spin since Shane Warne was at his peak, but I suspect the minister might be surprised at how easy it has been to befuddle most of Australia's media. The "leaking" of the "14 per cent cut" in skilled migration on Sunday worked a treat, capturing the headlines on Monday and getting a second run with the official announcement that night on the box and in Tuesday's fish wrappers.

Most of it, as Evans well knows, was misleading nonsense, just throwing the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union a bone to protect a few construction and building tradies, being seen to be doing something about rising unemployment, while actually having no meaningful impact on this year's record migration surge.

Yes, Evans did announce a cut of 18,500 in the skilled permanent migrant category, "slashing" the intake by 14 per cent to 115,000. He might not have mentioned this still meant a 12 per cent increase on the previous year's intake and represented a bare 5 per cent impact on total migration this year, that's close to 350,000. Make that 332,000 now, still a record high.

The industry and union response was in tune with the Government's intention of being perceived to be active in the hitherto missing policy area while not really rocking the boat or reducing the demand created by new migrants. There are uncomfortable truths about the mix of labour and migration policies in this recession, starting with the reality that the labour market is weakening from a strong base.

If you accept that the Australia of 4 per cent unemployment effectively had "full" employment, then our present 5.2 per cent nominal jobless rate really means 1.2 per cent. There were already doubts in the first half of last year about the sustainability of sub-5 per cent unemployment, if inflation was to be contained.

Less media coverage was given to total employment remaining flat. Admittedly, this was due to a surge in part-time jobs making up for the fall in full-time jobs, but in harder times, a job is a job. Even when unemployment reaches the 7 per cent forecast by the Government and major banks, it won't be much above the level before Australia's last recession.

As Evans admits, there are still areas where Australia lacks skills and must import the end-product of other countries' investment in education and training. Some people are losing jobs and more will, but in any historical context, we're a long way from being in the crisis the politicians and headlines suggest.

The Government has caught itself in a trap by convincing the electorate before the last election that working families were doing it tough, when they really never had it so good. From such heights, any fall can seem steep.

Our real immigration numbers are much higher than the official immigration program generally reported. May's budget boosted the "official" program places by 20 per cent to 190,300 - just to put this week's cut of 18,500 in perspective - but there are another 160,000 not officially referred to as migrants. Kiwis, 457 visas and a few others are not part of the official migration policy.

It is not unreasonable to expect the number of dipthong stranglers [New Zealanders have a distinctive accent] from across the ditch will at least be maintained, some of them economic refugees, maybe finding work here in construction. Last financial year, 34,491 Kiwis settled. There were another 1428 people in an unspecified "other non-program" category.

And there are the subsection 457 guest workers who are the first to feel the chill winds of labour protectionism. It seems 457 visas are down about 20 per cent in January and February, or about 100,000 people this year. I'd argue that the way 457s hold up is a better indicator of the real strength of the Australian labour market and our skills shortages and mismatches than what comes out of ABS labour surveys.


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