Sunday, December 20, 2009

Opposition Leader slams Rudd over Copenhagen 'failure'

THE Copenhagen conference on climate change has been a "comprehensive failure" for the prime minister, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott says. After 13 days of tortuous talks the representatives of 192 nations have set a goal of limiting warming to 2C and earmarked $US10 billion ($A11.28 billion) in early funding for poor countries most at risk from climate change.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd threw his support behind the deal as "a significant global agreement on climate change action", but said much more remained to be done. "Some will be disappointed by the amount of progress, the alternative was frankly catastrophic collapse," he told reporters at the troubled summit.

However, Mr Abbott said the result was a rebuff to the prime minister. "Intentions are better than nothing, but Mr Rudd has failed his own test," Mr Abbott told Sky News today. "He said a few years ago that what we wanted to get were real targets against real time lines ... and certainly by that standard it's been a comprehensive failure."

He said such agreement as was reached by world leaders was too unspecific to be of value. "We can all say let's get temperature increases down, but they haven't said what they would do to bring that about ... They've said let's not let the temperature go up by more than two degrees but they haven't said how they're going to achieve it. "No country at Copenhagen has committed to any particular way forward. That's why I think it's very disappointing and that's why I think it's very hard for the prime minister, who always said real progress meant real targets against real time lines, it's very hard for him to claim any kind of a victory."

Mr Abbott added: "What this shows is that Kevin Rudd was very unwise to rush Australia into prematurely adopting a commitment in the absence of similar commitments from the rest of the world, and I think it certainly entirely vindicates the opposition's stance in rejecting Mr Rudd's great big new tax on everything when parliament was sitting earlier this month."


Big spending, poor results

TREASURY Secretary Ken Henry observed in a recent speech to the Whitlam Institute that the Whitlam government was "responsible for an enduring increase in the size of government". No argument there. But he went on to suggest this expansion "has never been reversed and I think I can safely say that it never will be".

Not so fast Ken! It is true government spending has increased dramatically. In Australia, commonwealth government spending was pushing 20 per cent of gross domestic product before Gough Whitlam came to power. The Rudd government has taken the commonwealth's expenditure share to 27.8 per cent of GDP this financial year, following the biggest increase in federal spending since Whitlam. Spending by all levels of government in Australia was about 34 per cent of GDP in 2007-08, even before the federal government's stimulus. The Treasury's last Intergenerational Report projected a further 4.75 percentage point increase in the government spending share of GDP by 2046-47 in the absence of changes to government policy.

But how big should government be? According to Henry, "the optimal size of government is not a question that can be answered by a technical economic analysis".The issue, he says, "goes beyond aggregates to broader issues of wellbeing".

Under Henry, Treasury has adopted a "wellbeing framework". It identifies wellbeing with several criteria: the level of freedom and opportunity that people enjoy; aggregate consumption possibilities; the distribution of consumption possibilities; the level of risk that people bear; and the level of complexity people are required to deal with.

Yet no policymaker committed to improving the wellbeing of the Australian people based on this framework can be resigned to a permanent expansion in the size of government. On the contrary, there is abundant evidence that big government fails these criteria for promoting wellbeing.

The literature on the optimal size of government finds that beyond a certain size, government hinders rather than helps the private sector to capture gains from trade and to generate income and wealth. This results in a narrower tax base, so that government revenue and spending actually become smaller in absolute terms than if the government share of GDP remained capped at its optimal size. Limiting the size of government as a share of GDP not only expands aggregate consumption possibilities, it increases the scope for improved distribution of consumption possibilities through the tax system.

The threshold at which the government share of GDP begins to reduce rather than promote economic growth is necessarily imprecise. Gerald Scully calculated that the optimal size of government for the US and New Zealand was between 19 per cent and 23 per cent of GDP. It would be surprising if the optimal size of government were any larger in Australia. Remarkably, John Maynard Keynes took a similar view. Keynes agreed on 25 per cent as the maximum tolerable proportion of taxation.

We can look beyond the implications of big government for economic growth to consider its implications for other indicators in areas such as health, education and the environment. Economists Vito Tanzi and Ludger Schuknecht conducted a review of the effects of increased government spending on a range of non-economic indicators in their book Public Spending in the 20th Century: A Global Perspective.

They found growth in the size of government in the post-war period was associated with worse outcomes in almost every economic and social dimension. They concluded the optimal size of government is less than 30 per cent of GDP and that most governments in the developed world exceeded their optimal size between 1960 and 1980. Tanzi and Schuknecht argue the second half of the 20th century constituted a global experiment in the effects of the growth of government, which pointed to its failure to improve wellbeing as defined by Treasury. Yet Henry insists a "lack of evidence of a clear relationship between increased expenditure and better outcomes is not to say that more expenditure will not improve outcomes". This sounds like a triumph of hope over experience. What makes the expansion in the size of government so insidious is that the economic possibilities and improved wellbeing that are forgone as a consequence are never seen by the public. As someone interested in promoting the wellbeing of the Australian people, Henry should be challenging this complacency, rather than resigning us to it.


Greenies think that libel is free speech -- when they do the libelling

A Greenie MP's costly outburst raises questions about free speech. Must we watch what we say in the tea room? Might we be taped? Note however that the offender is a notorious extremist

The politician who said too much will return to the scene of the crime tonight. There'll be music and comedians at a fund-raiser for Ian Cohen at the Suffolk Park Progress Association hall, just south of Byron Bay. "And I might walk around with a gag on," says Cohen, a NSW Greens upper house MP. "The less I say, the better."

It was in this same hall in April 2001 that Cohen now admits he was unwise to speak out about a local developer, Jerry Lee Bennette, during two benefit concerts for Bill Mackay, a school teacher. Bennette had been suing Mackay for defamation over a letter to a newspaper criticising an environmental award to the developer for his gated community. Cohen was helping to raise funds to cover Mackay's legal costs. Little did Cohen know that Bennette had sent in private investigators who secretly taped his address. As three courts have heard, Cohen called Bennette a thug and a bully who was suing to stop criticism and stifle public debate - a so-called SLAPP suit (Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation).

For that outburst, which was found to be untrue, Bennette sued Cohen, too. The MP now owes the developer more than $1 million, only $15,000 of which is the damages for the defamation. The rest is legal costs. "It is not as though he called him a pedophile or a wife-beater or something," Cohen's barrister, Clive Evatt, told the High Court last month. To no avail. Tonight's show will make a small dent in Cohen's bill. He is selling his Tamarama flat, which might cover half of it. He has raised another $45,000 in donations. He's been offered loans.

But this case is about much more than Ian Cohen, Evatt says. It has "very big" implications for freedom of speech, he claims. The barrister says the NSW Court of Appeal has significantly narrowed the common law defence of qualified privilege for defamation. Evatt warns this should alarm anyone inclined to speak their mind in a small forum, or anyone who dares to make robust comments about their boss or the strata manager.

"That's rubbish," says Bruce McClintock, SC, who represented Bennette. "The defence of qualified privilege has never protected gossip, backstabbing or abuse." McClintock says it has nothing to do with free speech and everything to do with a long-term malicious vendetta against his client by green groups in Byron Bay.

While a jury had found in 2007 that Cohen did indeed defame the developer, Justice Ian Harrison accepted Cohen's defence of qualified privilege. To rely on this defence, a person must have an interest or a duty - legal, social or moral - to make the statement to the people receiving it, and they must have a reciprocal interest or duty to hear it. Those who attended the hall had paid an entry fee in support of Bill Mackay. Justice Harrison suggested it was contrary to society's interest that people's rights should be hampered "by constant fear of actions for slander".

The judge ruled there was no malice in Cohen's remarks, at least in those inside the hall. But Justice Harrison said Cohen did demonstrate malice when, in November 1999, he called a local surf club and suggested, without foundation, that Bennette had assaulted a junior member.

The judge also said Bennette had been "prepared to dish it out when it suited him" and had "dedicated much of his life to putting people offside". He considered Bennette's 1996 conviction for assaulting the filmmaker David Bradbury, altercations with neighbours and an often "poisonous" relationship with Cohen. This included Bennette's apprehended violence order against Cohen, later dropped, in 2000. Bennette told the Herald he had been subjected to a malicious campaign, and he disputed Justice Harrison's remarks.

In March this year, the Court of Appeal overturned Justice Harrison's finding. Declaring Bennette was "a thug and a bully does not advance the cause of free speech, the environment or justice", Justice David Ipp said. The High Court refused Cohen leave to appeal last month.

McClintock said: "It is simply ridiculous to say that this case has any freedom of speech implications whatever. What sort of society would we live in if people could purvey … false gossip to their friends under the protection of the law?"

Cohen accepts the right to seek legal redress for defamation. After all, he sued Channel Seven and The Daily Telegraph. But he says there is a key difference: his own remarks, secretly taped, were never meant for wide consumption. Nevertheless, Cohen says: "The damages against me of $15,000 - I can cop that. But when you have a bill for costs from the plaintiff for $1,015,000, there's quite a discrepancy." He now self-censors his remarks.

"That is no good for democracy," says Bob Brown, the federal Greens leader, who believes others will be hushed. Brown was one of the so-called Gunns 20 - the 17 individuals and three organisations that the forestry company sued in 2004 for $6.4 million for activities ranging from protest to public statements. Five years and $2.8 million later, Gunns has dropped its case against 16 of the defendants, including Brown. Its claims against the remaining four amount to just $184,000.

The ACT has adopted the Greens' anti-SLAPP legislation. Brown wants the rest of Australia to follow its lead and that of some US states and introduce the legislation to ensure cases are thrown out if they are designed to prevent protest or debate.

But McClintock rejects the notion that Bennette's cases were SLAPP suits. They were "quite different from Gunns' misguided case … It was not started to shut Cohen up but to vindicate the plaintiff from a false (as the judge found), defamatory (as the jury found), public attack on him."

Cohen will retire in March 2011. Before he goes, he is considering a private member's bill seeking to ensure costs in such cases are commensurate with any damages.

The debate on freedom of speech is far from settled, but there are two certainties: a considerably poorer politician and an aggrieved small-time developer.

Cohen had been planning, in retirement, to do volunteer work in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. "I had big plans but they've been cast astray." He will have to see, but he is not crying poor. He has one property and a stake in another, both with mortgages, around Byron Bay. He knows others do it much tougher. He works with the disabled. Cohen recalls a Buddhist saying: "If they burn down your house, the better you can see the moon."

Jerry Lee Bennette is not so sanguine. "It is not possible to put into a few words the hurt to my family and myself caused by Mr Ian Cohen MP in what I regard as a malicious campaign to destroy my reputation and business."


Dangerously sluggish government medical services again

After a stroke a 73-year-old man has to wait 35 mins for the ambulance

A 73-year-old man waited at least 35 minutes for an ambulance after suffering a stroke at the breakfast table. The ambulance service defended its response in the case of Craig Laird, whose family is upset help did not arrive faster. Paramedics were sent from Lara, outside Geelong, even though he lives near the city's heart.

Mr Laird's daughter Trish McClure said she arrived 15 minutes after her mother Priscilla called for help to find no ambulance at their home in Pleasant St, Newtown. "I pulled up and thought I'd missed it," she said. Mrs McClure said her mother phoned a second time while waiting because she was alarmed.

Ambulance Victoria said the call-out was logged as a code two rather than the top priority code one, because they had been told Mr Laird had had a heart attack but was conscious. A Geelong ambulance was en route to Pleasant St but was diverted to a code one job, so the Lara crew was sent.

AV's general manager of regional services Tony Walker said the code two assessment was based on a "robust process" and, had Mr Laird been unconscious, the ambulance would have been sent with lights and sirens. "We do apologise to the family," he said. Mr Walker said the crew arrived 35 minutes after the first call but Mr Laird's family said it was longer.

Mrs McClure said she did not believe the delay made any difference to her father's plight but he deserved quicker help. Mr Laird was believed to be in a stable condition in hospital last night. Opposition health spokesman David Davis said: "Stroke patients should not be left vulnerable by delayed ambulances."

The Herald Sun this week revealed that Yarrawonga woman Kim Broadbent was left impaled on a fence post for 47 minutes before ambulance help arrived. Former St Kilda footballer Laurie Stephenson was not seen by a paramedic until 38 minutes after he collapsed with a fatal heart attack.


1 comment:

Paul said...

Notorious extremist or not, the use of law to silence even conversational criticism is pretty pathetic. And the only winners here seem to be the lawyers. As usual.