Monday, December 20, 2010

Australia squares the circle

I have just put up on Dissecting Leftism a large excerpt from an article which sets out data tending to show that Australia scores very highly both as one of the freest countries in the world and also as one of the most "equal" countries in the world.

This has a huge bearing on Left/Right political controversies. The Left generally argue for more economic equality while conservatives generally argue for more economic liberty.

So what the Australian example shows is that such competing claims are not entirely a zero-sum game. You can at the same time have more of what both Right and Left want. I think that is a finding of very far-reaching implications for other countries, such as the USA. There are already major similarities between Australia and the USA so a convergence on the Australian system by the USA should, at least in theory, be much easier than most other sorts of change.

I think the claim that the USA is an "exceptional" country is so obviously true that it cannot rationally be denied (even if Mr Obama doesn't think so) but it would appear that Australia is another English-speaking country that is exceptional in important ways too.


Five current articles below

Rejected asylum seekers should go home, says the United Nations

THE UN refugee agency says Australia's immigration detention system is being clogged by growing numbers of rejected asylum seekers who should be sent home.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees regional representative Richard Towle says large numbers of people now coming through the asylum system in Australia are not refugees and "the challenge is how to find fair and humane and effective ways of allowing them to leave this country to go home", Fairfax newspapers report.

The deportation of failed asylum seekers has already been announced as central to the government's efforts to stem the flow of boats.

So far, however, only a handful of asylum seekers have been deported. The government is believed to be examining further incentives for people to return home.

Mr Towle told Fairfax that improved political conditions in Sri Lanka and changed methods for assessing Afghan asylum seeker cases have led to the jump in the number of rejected cases, most "left sitting in the detention centres in Western Australia".

He also called for greater regional co-operation and improved conditions in South-East Asia to prevent asylum seekers from making the perilous voyage from Indonesia. He said the problem has little to do with Australia's border protection policies, but rather a "protection vacuum" throughout the region that has been forcing people to risk their lives on unseaworthy vessels.


Tony Abbott calls for tougher laws to prevent further asylum seeker boat tragedies

TONY Abbott has shattered the political truce over the Christmas Island boat tragedy, suggesting tougher border protection laws could have prevented the incident.

The Opposition Leader said the deaths of at least 30 people in the shipwreck was an "unspeakable horror" and demanded a return to Howard government-era policies, including turning asylum seeker boats around.

"The sad truth is that as long as the people-smuggling trade exists, as long as the boats keep coming, the risk of disaster remains," he said in his first public comments since Wednesday's disaster. "That's why it is important that we put policies in place as quickly as humanly possible that do offer the prospect of stopping the boats."

The official search for survivors was called off on Sunday as memorial services for the dead, many of them babies and young children, were held on Christmas Island.

The island's imam, Abdul Ghaffar Ismail, led a funeral prayer session and memorial for the survivors of the boat disaster and their families at the detention centre at Phosphate Hill on Sunday afternoon. He then held a second service at Construction Camp, another detention facility for families.

And at an intimate memorial in the island's small Catholic Church community, leaders told a crowd of worshippers - some locals, some detainees - the tragedy would never be forgotten.

Mr Abbott said it was time to reintroduce harsher deterrents for asylum seekers, calling for an "urgent" return to temporary protection visas, the reopening of the Nauru detention centre and turning the boats around. "We stopped the boats before, we can stop the boats again if we put the right policies in place," he said.

The Opposition Leader, who was in Japan when the tragedy happened, also formally rejected Prime Minister Julia Gillard's bid for a new committee to examine the facts of the incident, saying there was no need for it. "I don't think we need any new processes," Mr Abbott said.

The Opposition Leader's call to arms came only hours after Nationals' Senate Leader Barnaby Joyce warned that voters would judge politicians harshly for using the tragedy to force a policy change.

He also said it was the navy's call, not a politician's, to determine if a boat should be turned around, despite Mr Abbott's "boat phone" election promise that it would be a "prime ministerial decision".

Immigration Minister Chris Bowen also rejected Mr Abbott's call for harsher penalties, backing the Government's regional solution policy. He also said it would take "considerable expense and effort" to reopen Nauru. "The detention centre at Nauru closed: half of it is a school, other parts of it have been dismantled and moved around the island, some of it is Government offices," he said.

Mr Bowen also said the Government needed to work on a "very robust returns policy" for failed asylum seekers after the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said a number of applicants in Australia were found not to be refugees.


Key Independent rejects position on Christmas Island 'committee'

Andrew Wilkie has turned down a spot on the federal government's standing group on Christmas Island, saying Australia wants action, not talk.

The former intelligence officer has launched a blistering attack on the government's approach to asylum-seekers in the wake of last week's boat accident, in which 30 people died.

His comments came as Labor MPs broke ranks on the Julia Gillard's handling of the issue, with the Prime Minister being urged to undertake a "serious review" of policies amid calls for a return to hardline treatment.

Mr Wilkie wants Labor to immediately double its humanitarian intake of refugees as well as boosting "disruption" operations in Indonesia to stop boats setting sail. "The government has dropped the ball," Mr Wilkie told ABC Radio. "Whatever it is doing is clearly not working.

"Even the best defence force ... is still going to struggle to pick up small wooden boats in that big ocean, (so) you've got to stop the boats leaving Indonesia. "It has to be ramped up, we have to hunt the smugglers down and put them out of business."

He rejected the government's proposed standing group as unnecessary, joining ranks with the opposition, which has already refused to be involved. "This isn't a case of setting up another committee and talking about it for another six months," Mr Wilkie said. "This is a case of looking at what we can do now and implementing them now. "If we wait another six months, more people are going to die."

Mr Wilkie said Opposition Leader Tony Abbott had offered to double Australia's humanitarian intake in a bid to win the independent MP's support in forming government. Mr Wilkie said it was time for the opposition to resurrect the offer.

But a spokesman from Mr Abbott's office said Mr Wilkie was exaggerating. “The possibility of a modest increase in the humanitarian intake through established UN channels was canvassed in the context of a much tougher border protection policy,” the spokesman said. “There was no suggestion of doubling the intake.”


A diminished Gillard caught in a storm of her own making

The most surprising aspect of Julia Gillard's first day of facing parliamentary questioning as the newly elected Prime Minister was her demeanour. Gone was the woman who had made an art of confidence, even mockery, during question time. On this day, September 29, she was pale and nervous. She even said the government's home insulation program ''was beset by problems. It became a mess''.

Australia's first woman Prime Minister was clearly shaken from having just emerged from a terrible election campaign. She had lost the election. More members sat opposite her, and on the crossbenches, than sat with her government. That she was still Prime Minister was due only to a political fluke, a statistical improbability, and the moral gymnastics of two rank opportunists, the independent MPs Robert Oakeshott and Tony Windsor. This pair managed to turn the lowest combined vote in the entire nation for Labor and the Greens into a mandate for a Labor government, propped up by the Greens.

Three months on from her near-death experience, Gillard has still not grown into her new role. Never did this seem more evident than in the aftermath of the tragedy at Christmas Island with asylum seekers dying in the surf. What did she do in this moment of crisis? She called for a committee.

It is impossible to exaggerate the failure of Gillard and her government in their policies towards boat people. She was the principle author of a policy paper, Protecting Australia, Protecting the Australian Way, which became Labor policy. This policy has managed to create the worst of both worlds: cruel yet ineffective. And ludicrously expensive, like almost everything else this government does.

The detention centres are bulging. More are sprouting up. A detention centre has been set up in a Brisbane hotel. Another in Darwin. Another in Melbourne. Another at a remote air force base in Western Australia. Another at a second remote air force base in north Queensland. A defence housing site in the Adelaide Hills has been turned into yet another detention centre, to the consternation of the locals. As for Christmas Island, it became saturated a year ago.

The vast majority of those arriving by boat are being granted residency. The approval rate is roughly twice that of applicants processed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). This is a green light to the people-smuggling trade.

The High Commissioner for Refugees has warned that large numbers claiming asylum status in Australia are not refugees. The government has been slow to handle legitimate refugee claims. It has been slow to handle illegitimate claims. Detention centres have seen riots, demonstrations, hunger strikes, self-harm and suicide by asylum seekers.

The courts are clotted with immigration appeals. The law itself has been rendered uncertain. The refugee intake quota has stayed set at 13,500, which means boat people are significantly displacing those awaiting processing by the UNHCR. This is the ''queue'' that refugee advocates pretend does not exist. It is another green light for people-smuggling.

The government has failed to prosecute those who blew up an asylum boat in 2009, killing five and injuring 40. It capitulated to demands from people with zero leverage during a standoff with Sri Lankans aboard the Oceanic Viking.

Almost 200 boatloads have arrived since Labor came to government. The people-smuggling trade is thriving. The budget for handling the refugee intake has blown out. Expensive charter flights are shuffling asylum seekers around the country. Children have drowned. Families have been separated.

All this manifold policy failure was compounded by Gillard when she came up with the panicky initiative of proposing an offshore refugee processing centre in East Timor. It was a ludicrous idea. East Timor is a failed state. It cannot be relied upon for anything.

During her first question time as an elected prime minister on September 29, Gillard was asked, with no delicacy, about yet another emergency Band-Aid being applied to the asylum seeker backlog:

Warren Entsch (Liberal National Party): ''I refer to the government's claim prior to and during the election that asylum seekers will not be housed at RAAF Base Scherger, nor would an immigration detention centre be built at RAAF Base Scherger. Now that the government has announced that RAAF Base Scherger will be used as a detention centre, how can anybody believe any promise made by this government?''

Gillard: ''I think we should be a little bit clear about the facts. What has been announced by the government is that the base will be used for short-term accommodation, while longer term options are investigated.''

This was misleading. On August 2, three weeks before the federal election, The Cairns Post reported that preparations were under way at the base to install a high-wire fence and outdoor lighting.

The newspaper quoted a government spokesman saying: ''On current plans, asylum seekers will not be housed at RAAF Scherger. Nor will an immigration detention centre be built at RAAF Scherger.''

Within weeks of the election, Scherger had become a detention centre. It now houses 300 male asylum seekers. This is all a Gillard-owned debacle on a scale even greater than her gold-plated Building the Education Revolution.

Even so, none of this is an excuse for the odious accusations that have been assiduously constructed by refugee advocates that the Gillard government, specifically the navy, was partly culpable for the drowning deaths of 30 asylum seekers at Christmas Island on Wednesday.

The moral chain in this matter is not complex. The people who sold places on the boat, and bought places on the boat, were assiduous in avoiding the process of legal arrival and safe passage. The protection of the state does not extend to illegal entry through ocean storms.


Beware gurus selling high migration

Article below by economist Ross Gittins, who is normally Left-leaning

The economic case for rapid population growth though immigration is surprisingly weak, but a lot of economists are keen to give you the opposite impression. Fortunately, the Productivity Commission can't bring itself to join in the happy sales job.

I suspect that, since almost all economists are great believers in economic growth as the path to ever higher material living standards, they have a tendency to throw in population growth for good measure. There's no doubt a bigger population leads to a bigger economy; the question is whether it leads to higher real income per person, thereby raising average living standards.

Of course, business people can gain from selling to a bigger market, regardless of whether the punters are better off. So I'd be wary of advice coming from economists employed by business or providing consulting services to business.

In 2006 the Productivity Commission conducted a modelling exercise to assess the effect of a 50 per cent increase in our skilled immigrant intake. It found that, after 20 years, real gross domestic product was only about 4 per cent higher than otherwise.

And the increase in real income per person was minor. What's more, most of the gains accrued to the migrants themselves, with the existing population suffering a tiny net decline in income. Why this lack of benefit? You'd expect the extra skilled labour to raise the proportion of the population participating in the labour force, thus boosting production per person.

But most of the productiveness of workers are achieved by the physical capital they're given to work with. So unless your extra workers are given extra capital equipment - a process known as "capital widening" - their productivity is likely to decline, thus offsetting the gain from having more workers.

Note, too, that we have to increase the housing stock to accommodate the migrant workers and their families, as well as providing the extra public infrastructure for a bigger population. So the migrants are paid to supply their labour, but the rest of us have to provide the extra economic and social capital they need if standards aren't to fall.

Last week Tony Burke, the federal minister responsible for developing a "sustainable population strategy" next year, released an issues paper to encourage discussion. It was accompanied by the reports of three advisory panels, including one on the economic aspects, led by Heather Ridout of the Australian Industry Group.

Ridout's report sets out to talk up the economic case for high migration by dispelling "myths" and pointing to hard-to-quantify benefits "often ignored by low-growth advocates when they skim the literature" (that's what they call a professorial put-down).

The main hard-to-quantify benefits left out of the Productivity Commission's modelling are the economies of scale arising from a bigger market. But why after all these years have economists been unable to produce good empirical evidence of something as straightforward as scale economies?

And why wax lyrical about unmeasurable benefits without mentioning unmeasurable costs? In its recent booklet on population and immigration, the commission acknowledges that as well as economies of scale there could be diseconomies.

The Ridout report objects that the commission's modelling measured the benefit of increased immigration only over 20 years. Sorry, but if you have to wait more than 20 years for the payoff you're not talking about a powerful effect.

A relatively new argument in favour of high immigration is that it could foster economic growth by countering to some extent the decline in labour-force participation caused by the ageing of the population. But, since immigrants age too, all this can do is put off the evil hour (not a course of action usually promoted by economists). To continue postponing the crunch you have to keep upping the dose of immigration.

The Productivity Commission is blunt: "changes in migration flows are unlikely to have a significant and lasting effect on the ageing of Australia's population".

The Ridout report argues that a faster-growing, immigration-fuelled economy would require greater levels of investment by businesses and in public infrastructure. This greater capital spending would generally involve investment in more productive capital equipment, as recent technological improvements will be embedded in the newer stock. In this way, faster growth of the size of the economy would drive the productivity gains that are central to advances in material living standards, we're told.

Huh? The proposition is that by taking on a need for considerable investment in capital widening (to provide the extra workers with the equipment and infrastructure they need to be as productive as the existing workers) we're increasing the scope for capital deepening (giving each worker more and better capital equipment).

Am I missing something? This is a twist on a common economists' argument I've never managed to fathom: we need to grow more and do more damage to the natural environment because when we're richer we'll be able to afford to fix the damage we've done to the environment.

The Ridout report asserts that provided population growth is "balanced and managed well", living standards will rise. It needs to be "matched by greater commitments to education and skills development, more and better investments in infrastructure, greater attention to the development of our cities and regions and to our natural environment".

In other words, to give business the extra population it wants but prevent this from worsening all those things, governments at all levels will really need to lift their game as well as spend a lot more. Turn in a perfect performance and high immigration won't be a problem.

I prefer the commission's way of putting it: "population growth and immigration can magnify existing policy problems and amplify pressures on 'unpriced' entities, such as the environment, and urban and social amenity".


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