Saturday, May 29, 2010

Don’t trust Google, trust the government

By Jessica Brown

Thank goodness for Communications Minister Stephen Conroy and his tireless campaign to protect us from the nasty World Wide Web. Like a brave David squaring up against colossal Goliath, he vows to protect us from the evil clutches of internet behemoth Google and its dastardly ways.

In a Senate Estimates hearing this week, Conroy launched a scathing attack on the search giant for a privacy breach in which personal data were inadvertently collected from some Wi-Fi users. The breach was indeed serious, and Conroy is not the only person around the globe to raise concerns. But he just might be the angriest.

A quick scan of HANSARD, however, reveals that Conroy’s real problem with Google is that the search engine doesn’t know its place. ‘They consider themselves to be above government,’ says the Senator. ‘When it comes to their attitude to their own censorship, their response is simply, “Trust us.” They state on the website, “Trust us.”'

And it is this attitude that, according to Conroy, is so dangerous. Perhaps he has a point?

Google can decide – on a whim – to remove web pages it doesn’t like. We will never know what they are because its blacklist is a secret. We don’t even know what criteria are used to decide which pages get binned, or if and when those criteria are changed.

But guess what? It’s the same story with Conroy’s proposed internet filter.

The only difference is, if you don’t like the way Google works you can switch to Bing, Yahoo or any of the other multitude of search engines. If you don’t like the way the government’s internet filter will work, your best option is to leave the country.

Conroy doesn’t really see the connection though. While Google is a ‘corporate giant who is answerable to no one and motivated solely by profit,’ his government is driven by an altruistic urge to protect us all.
But what about those times when it is motivated not by altruism but by a desire to win the next election? Or push an ideological barrow? Or buy off an interest group? Or pander to the political views of an independent that holds the balance of power?

Can we really trust the government to decide – behind our backs – what is in our best interests any more than we can trust Google?

Perhaps a (not so?) radical idea would be for Conroy to trust us to decide for ourselves.

The above is a press release from the Centre for Independent Studies, dated 28 May. Enquiries to Snail mail: PO Box 92, St Leonards, NSW, Australia 1590.

Tough immigration policy will play well for the conservatives in Australia's forthcoming election

Even the Left-leaning writer below can see that

TONY Abbott's embrace of the Pacific Solution to deter boat arrivals will be popular but it affirms the deeper story about the Coalition: it is smart on politics but weak on governing credentials.

Its new hard line on boat people is a "trust us" declaration that invokes the John Howard brand. This is a case of Abbott being Howard, hence his remark that "my values are very, very similar to those of John Howard". Because this statement is true, Abbott's pledge that his policy "is about stopping the boats" will resonate deeply.

Liberal Party research shows boat arrivals remain a red-hot issue. Much of the sentiment is ugly, hostile and deep-seated. As usual, Abbott has taken an absolutist stance: facing a complex challenge he offers populist purism. "We've done it before, we will do it again," he said. "Stop the boats, we must. Stop the boats, we will." The message: Kevin Rudd is weak on boat arrivals and Abbott is strong. That's it. Roger, over and out.

It is a variation of his stance on the resource super-profits tax. "This great big new tax has already put all investment decisions on hold," Abbott said in his budget reply. "The Coalition will oppose the mining tax in opposition and we will rescind it in government." No debate, no qualifications. No concession that taxing profits is the superior principle in a resource tax regime. Abbott's stance is policy must not hinder politics. Indeed, he told 2GB's Alan Jones this week that miners "are paying more than their fair share of tax", a claim much of the industry doesn't even make in its self-defence.

Such absolutism gives Abbott a cut-through quality that maximises his mobilisation of anti-Labor sentiment. People know what he stands for. But it raises another question: is running Australia this simple? Julia Gillard said yesterday that on boat people Abbott had "a slogan, not a solution". The day before Rudd dismissed Abbott for having no resources tax policy whatsoever despite his campaign.

The opening Labor seeks is obvious: Abbott can coin a slogan but you wouldn't want him running the country. In a sense the more progress Abbott makes the more Rudd depicts him as motor-mouth but not a viable prime minister. During a campaign Rudd's capacity to mount a disciplined argument that he is better able to manage the challenges of office should not be discounted.

Beneath Abbott's populism lies his obsession with values. Policy is hard; values are easy. Policy is about balancing competing interests; values are about taking stands. Such tensions are accentuated in the asylum-seeker debate; this is difficult policy but lends itself to populist hyperbole.

Rudd is susceptible because he tried to find a compromise (protecting the borders but softening Howard's repression of asylum-seekers) only to face a resurgence of boats.

So far in 2009-10 there have been 104 boats carrying 4893 people, the highest number on record.

This triggers an iron law of Australian politics: any prime minister is vulnerable if unable to halt the flow of boats. Put another way, every PM needs to show credibility as a border protectionist. Much of the media either cannot grasp or cannot accept this logic but it has complex and legitimate roots in our political culture.

In a tactic to intensify the heat, Abbott and his immigration spokesman Scott Morrison have unveiled a revised policy resting on three principles: where possible the Coalition will turn back the boats; all unauthorised arrivals will be processed offshore and this means negotiating "to establish an offshore processing detention centre in another country" to supplement Christmas Island because it is now at capacity; and restoration of temporary protection visas for unauthorised arrivals, with such people having no family reunion rights and no right to re-enter the country if they depart, thereby allowing the Coalition to lift Labor's discriminatory treatment of Sri Lankan and Afghan asylum-seekers.

How such pledges would work in practice is highly speculative. Abbott and Morrison know their policy is riddled with uncertainty. Turning back the boats requires another nation's co-operation, usually Indonesia. Immigration Minister Chris Evans says under Howard only seven boats were returned and none after 2003. As former foreign minister Alexander Downer said, Jakarta was prepared to allow some tow-backs after the Tampa crisis but this was kept as quiet as possible. Scope to revive this technique seems most improbable with Indonesia hardly a willing conscript. Morrison concedes prospects rest entirely on regional relations.

The Coalition's position on offshore processing duplicates Howard's Pacific Solution. This arose in 2001 because Howard refused to have the Tampa people processed in Australia and his government intimidated and bribed agreements with Nauru and Papua New Guinea for detention and processing facilities.

Morrison refuses to nominate which country an Abbott government would favour for such a deal. Obviously, it could only be revealed in office. The policy says "processing in another country provides the necessary deterrent to discourage illegal boat arrivals". It means intercepted boats would be "taken to non-Australian territory". This equates to a tactic of permanent boat diversion.

Could an Abbott government strike such an arrangement? The Coalition wants the International Organisation for Migration to operate the facility with support from other regional nations.

In this sense it would be an expensive regional solution difficult to negotiate. Coalition policy says Australia would accept some refugees from such offshore processing but "we will not take blanket responsibility for all those transferred to this facility".

Abbott has drawn a fresh line in the sand. "At the moment the Rudd government is bringing illegal arrivals onshore," he said. "That must not happen." Delivering this declaration relies on truly heroic assumptions: that a willing nation can be found and other parties will agree to Australia's conditions. Abbott's claim he sees no reason why negotiations would not succeed is blind optimism.

How smart is the Coalition to revive the Pacific Solution? It faced no compulsion to do this. While the public wants the boats stopped, the Pacific Solution is hardly calculated to win mass applause. The political lesson, however, is that once the boats flow the winner is the leader taking the toughest stand. This is the essence of Abbott's tactic. Rudd cannot out-tough Abbott on this. For Labor, Howard's Pacific Solution was the most detested of all his border protection measures, so its revival maximises the differences between Coalition and Labor.

A similar argument applies to the Coalition's commitment to temporary protection visas. The evidence under Howard is they had a poor record as deterrents or as workable policy instruments. Yet they put more product discrimination between Labor and Coalition over boat people.

This week's events will shape the election campaign. The Coalition plans an intense and researched assault in the campaign proper around asylum-seekers, surely with paid advertising as Abbott matches Howard's border protection message. If a series of boats arrive in the week before the vote, the effect will be inflammatory and unpredictable.

This policy release sets the scene. Morrison said: "We have had 60 boats arrive this year. They are arriving at a rate of more than three per week where in the last six years of the Coalition government they were arriving at a rate of three per year."

While last Thursday's Coalition policy must have been released with an eye to the weekend Newspoll, its long-run purpose is more important. The lesson is that Abbott will wipe the floor with Rudd as a populist. Labor needs to grasp this and act on it. Its strategy must be to present itself as the more capable, responsible and disciplined team for government.


Black educational handicaps CAN be beaten

With disciplined instruction and enthusiasm -- NOT with currently conventional methods

If you want to see a real Education Revolution then you should go to the remote Cape York town of Aurukun, where Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson has imported a radical teaching program into a school in which more than half of the students were barely reading at kindergarten level, if they could read at all. In terms of indigenous disadvantage, Aurukun was at rock bottom, with NAPLAN test results 70 per cent below the national benchmark, and every year the achievement gap widening.

The social dysfunction of the Cape's most violent town, driven by gambling, drugs and alcohol, was being played out in the schoolyard. But Pearson says the children's backgrounds has always been used by principals, teachers and education department bureaucrats as an "alibi for schooling failure". His philosophy is that if a student is at school and ready to learn, "a learning failure is a teaching failure". Already, after just one-and-a-half terms, the American-designed Direct Instruction program in which teachers deliver scripted lessons, according to a strictly prescribed, methodical program in literacy and mathematics, has surpassed even Pearson's extraordinarily high hopes. It is a program on which he has staked his reputation, forced into being against the will of much of the educational establishment, and on which his legacy will be judged.

This week, the 17th week of the DI program, a year 4 girl named Imani Tamwoy became the first in the school to have caught up to her grade level in reading. The grade 5 to 7 students managed to master 76 per cent of the kindergarten program in the first 11 weeks, and the prep - or pre-kindy class of four-year olds - is already 40 per cent through the kindergarten language program.

"I'm surprised," Pearson said on Thursday, during a visit with his five-year-old son Ngulunhdhul, aka Charlie, to Aurukun school, two hours by charter flight from his Cairns home. "I thought in Aurukun we'd have a hell of a time with behaviour … I thought Aurukun would be special case, with the notoriety of the school and the community. But it hasn't been, and the great thing is we're doing it with your stock standard Education Queensland teacher. This is the biggest surprise and they're doing a bloody great job."

Pearson travelled to Oregon last year to meet the architect of DI, Professor Siegfried Engelmann, and after a series of bruising negotiations, and entrenched opposition from some teachers and bureaucrats, installed a $7 million three-year trial in Aurukun and Coen schools at the beginning of the year, with the cautious support of the Queensland Education department.

The new principal, Geoff Higham, 59, drafted early this year to replace his less than enthusiastic predecessor, remembers how students in years 8 and 9 used to bring iron bars to school. "The senior boys were out of control. They were reading at kindy level and they hated everything about school," he says. "It's hard to believe the transformation in just 15 or 16 weeks. "This is a wonderful system. All the children are put into ability groups so no one is failing. The teachers aren't failing. The children aren't failing … It's a magnificent successful educational experiment."

Having taught in hardscrabble schools from Kenya to Thursday Island, the former Victorian describes himself as an old-fashioned "chalk and talk" teacher. His previous schools have been described as places where "even the grass sits up straight". He says DI accords with his educational philosophy, that every child can learn, given a disciplined routine and effective instruction. But even in his wildest dreams he hadn't known how effective DI could be.

"I have no doubt the pupils will be at the national level in maths and English in three years' time, and many children will be one, two or three years above that level."

Walking through the collection of modest white buildings nestled among stringybark and palm trees at the school of 250 pupils, you see everywhere, on teachers' shirts, on banners and in classrooms, the motto Pearson has coined for his education revolution: "Get ready. Work Hard. Be Good."

In Sarah Travers's kindy class, she wears a microphone around her neck to amplify her voice for children with chronic ear infections. It seems to work, because her 10 five-year-old students sit attentively on the floor, calling out sounds as she points to phonetic symbols in a book. At 1.45 pm at the tail end of a busy school week, their concentration and focus is remarkable.

In another classroom, children are sounding out words as the teacher clicks her fingers rhythmically to speed up their voices so that the sounds soon join up to become a fluent word.

Colleen Page, a 24-year-old teacher from the Sunshine Coast, in her third year at Aurukun, says the change DI has had on her pupils is marked. "They thrive on it. It's really good to compare the last two years with this year … Previously the kids would be running around your classroom … not listening. Now they're confident about participation in class."

She tells the story of the eight-year-old boy who came to her one morning proudly telling her how he had applied his previous day's lesson. "Miss, I saw a frog, and I said, 'You are an amphibian. You are born in water and raised on land."'

An essential part of the DI program is weekly testing and data crunching. Every Thursday, 120 pages of detailed test scores and information about each student and class is faxed to a DI centre in North America to be analysed. The following Tuesday, the school leaders have a conference call with DI experts in Oregon, about any problems identified.

For example, the data may pinpoint a deficit in a particular child's understanding that came from a particular work sheet in a particular lesson that may have been taught six weeks earlier. The solution is prescribed and the process repeats itself.

The children seem to thrive on the organised routine. Even those difficult older children in years 9 and 10, who have not gone away to boarding school like most of their peers, and who were expected to be too far behind to reap many rewards from DI, have responded in a way that is heartening and heartbreaking, as you consider countless lost opportunities.

The next stage in Pearson's plan is to extend the school day to run from 8.30 am to 4.45 pm, with direct instruction of basic skills until 2.15 pm. Afternoons will be devoted to two crucial areas of learning: Club, which is physical activities such as Auskick, and Culture, which is devoted to learning their traditional Aboriginal culture and becoming literate in the first language of most Aurukun children, Wik-Mungkan.

With growing community delight in the new DI system at school, and the charismatic leadership of Pearson, there is a feeling of renewal in the air. Or, what Principal Higham calls a corner of light.


Rudd treats us like mugs with latest backslide on government ads

Readers of my columns could have gleaned by now that I like to talk. I confess it takes a great deal to render me speechless. But when I walked into the office this morning I was handed a statement that made me open my mouth in shock, sit down, and take a moment to compose myself.

I learned there was an emergency and the Government was going to use millions of dollars of your money to fix it. I’m a bit slow on the uptake. Even though I’ve been covering the story all week, I hadn’t quite grasped that the resources tax stoush had reached the status of national emergency.

But apparently it has. Events are such that the Rudd Government has decided to suspend its own flimsy guidelines for policing taxpayer funded advertising in order to get $38.5 million worth of ads praising its tax reforms on the air. Pronto.

Like tomorrow. And the day after. The new tax ads start tomorrow. Newspapers first. TV to come. Yes, this morning, the Special Minister of State Joe Ludwig had the honourable task of telling us that the government had decided to clear any hurdle between them and a big expensive ad campaign in order to counter the sound and fury from the resources industry.

These ads have not been cleared by the independent committee now charged with ensuring government ads contain necessary information rather than thinly disguised partisan propaganda. They have been cleared by the government. No-one else.

I hope you all find them interesting and informative given you are paying for them.

The Government has set aside its own process because ...? Ludwig: ‘‘I note and accept the Treasurer's advice that there is an active campaign of misinformation about the proposed changes and that Australians are concerned about how these changes will affect them. I further note and accept the Treasurer’s advice that, as tax reform involves changes to the value of some capital assets, they impact on financial markets.’’

‘‘Given that co-ordinated misinformation about the changes is currently being promulgated in paid advertising, I accept the need for extremely urgent action to ensure the Australian community receive accurate advice about the nature and effect of the changes.’’

Let’s recap the whole sequence for a second. Kevin Rudd comes to office in 2007 promising he will not abuse the process of government funded advertising like the Howard Government did so egregiously. If climate change was the "great moral challenge of our time" government advertising, according to Rudd in 2007, was "a long term cancer on our democracy." He wins. He appoints the Auditor-General to police government ads.

The Auditor-General runs a ruler over everything, thinking he’s doing his job (given the cancer and all that). He asks lots of questions. The government gets annoyed and bones him.

The government installs a new independent committee of former public servants to play the Auditors’ role. These public servants report to the government, (unlike the Auditor-General, who is independent from Government and reports to the Parliament.)

To cap off the backflip, it amends it own guidelines to give itself more discretion to bypass even the new watered down process in order to respond in cases where someone in the government decides there is a ‘‘compelling reason’’ to — how can I put this delicately — go for broke at the taxpayers expense. Then, today, it fulfils its own disappointing prophesy.

It takes advantage of its new ‘‘flexibility’’. It decides it won’t even bother with its new watered down accountability process and just whacks ads on the air. The trend of decision-making on this issue is all bad, not quite as bad as John Howard, but getting there.

Now let’s try and see things from their point of view for a moment. Of course the miners are digging into their deep pockets in order to beat up the government and squeeze the best deal possible out of the proposed Henry changes.

A number of big reforms — most importantly the emissions trading scheme — have been killed by negative fear campaigns by special interests. There is a case to advertise the tax changes because they are far-reaching and complex. But is there really a case to suspend its own standards of accountability in order to do it?

Seriously? Does the Government conclude that voters are so silly that they can’t see a special interest campaign when they see one? Do they so doubt their own capacity to communicate a clear message that they have to bring in the ponytails of ad land to dig them out of a political hole?

Whatever Joe Ludwig gets paid, it’s not enough to be the minister responsible for accountability in this government - having to routinely and consistently announce he is hacking into the high standards the government set itself when it came to office in 2007. They are slipping on this issue, and they are mugs if they think voters won’t notice.



Paul said...

Joe Ludwig, do I recall him correctly is some hideous lefty Union hack from way back?

Ruby of Toowoomba said...

When the person running the country has no credibility and will do anything to enforce what he thinks is right, it is a foregone conclusion that the people working for him will do the same, even if only to keep their jobs. There must be great consternation in Labor ranks.

Joe Ludwig is indeed a lefty Union hack, like most of the Labor Party. That is another reason why they are in such a mess. They have never had a real job or run a business apart from their twisted ideology.