Saturday, December 25, 2010

A desperate Leftist government clings to secrecy

KRISTINA KENEALLY has made a fresh bid to derail an inquiry into the government's power sale by declaring it illegal, prompting the Opposition Leader, Barry O'Farrell, to accuse her of trying to intimidate potential witnesses.

A day after the Premier was accused of shutting down Parliament to avoid an inquiry into the $5.3 billion sale of NSW electricity assets, a parliamentary committee defied her by resolving to continue its investigation.

The inquiry, which is planned for January 17 and 18, will ask for evidence from the eight directors of Delta Electricity and Eraring Energy who resigned in protest over the sale, as well as serving board members and public servants.

The committee plans to deliver its findings on January 31, less than two months before the state election. But the government has left open the possibility of a legal challenge, based on advice from the Crown Solicitor in 1994, which suggests committees cannot function when Parliament has been prorogued, or shut down.

At a news conference, Ms Keneally said the advice meant "such committees have no legal standing and they cannot afford parliamentary privilege or parliamentary protection [and] they cannot summon witnesses". Asked if she believed the inquiry would be illegal, Ms Keneally responded: "The advice we have from the Crown Solicitor is, yes."

However, the clerk of the Legislative Council, Lynn Lovelock, has argued that the Crown Solicitor's view is "restrictive".

The uncertain legal status raises questions about whether witnesses, particularly company directors, would appear voluntarily to discuss sensitive commercial matters if they are not covered by parliamentary privilege.

Mr O'Farrell said he believed the government was trying to discourage witnesses from attending the inquiry by leaving open the option of a legal challenge. "What we've seen today is both the Attorney-General and the Premier leave open the option of challenging this inquiry and therefore challenging the privilege which might apply to the evidence of people who might front up," he said. "That's a clear attempt in my view to try to silence witnesses. It's a clear attempt in my view to try to discourage people from attending this inquiry."

Mr O'Farrell rejected Ms Keneally's argument that an upper house inquiry was unnecessary because the Auditor-General would report on the sale process. He said the Auditor-General was unlikely to report before September, well after the election.

The chairman of the committee, the Christian Democrat MP Fred Nile, said the inquiry aimed "to find the truth - facts, information - that will benefit the public and in the long term be of benefit to the taxpayers of this state".

Mr Nile released a letter sent to him by Mr Roozendaal's acting chief of staff, Michael Galderisi, the day before Parliament was prorogued, warning the "uncertainty" created by an inquiry could jeopardise the sale of electricity assets.

Mr Nile described the concerns as "valid" but said the committee decided to proceed because of Ms Lovelock's advice.


Struggling Labor faces hot summer

THE Labor Party has ended the year at a remarkable low for a party that won an election and finished up with positive polling numbers, if only just.

One of the key conspirators in the ousting of Kevin Rudd, the Australian Workers Union national secretary Paul Howes, told me recently he believed Labor was at its lowest ebb since 1996.

That should be a worrying admission for the party faithful; 1996 was the year Labor fell to a record defeat after 13 years in office, losing to Paul Keating's nemesis John Howard and starting an 11 1/2-year stretch in the political wilderness.

Healing the party is the mantra Labor operatives are shopping around for the summer months. Julia Gillard recognises how divided the party is, so she intends to use the summer to forge unity before returning for the new parliamentary year in February on a strong footing to develop policy and attack the opposition.

It's a nice sounding theory, but if Gillard can't get enough clean political air to focus her energies on that task, she won't complete it. From the asylum-seekers' tragedy to the mining tax debate and the fallout from the WikiLeaks revelations, Gillard's summer so far has been no break. And the distractions (if you can call these incidents that) carry the added downside of throwing up more questions than answers about the government's core competency.

Traditionally, the summer months are a period of calm for a government - especially immediately after an election victory - and a period of destabilisation for an opposition. Opposition frontbenchers and backbenchers usually get edgy thinking about the long powerless haul ahead.

But this summer is different because the Coalition came closer to victory than it could have imagined 12 months ago. And the ongoing problems of the minority Labor government hold out opposition hope that a return to power might not have to wait until the end of the electoral cycle, which ensures discipline in the interim.

One senior MP went so far as to tell me he believed the next election was now the Coalition's to lose. As long as the opposition doesn't make any blunders, the government won't be able to pull itself out of the quagmire it is in.

The argument has merit when you look at the electoral map. Labor has 72 seats, as does the Coalition. Labor only gets to 76 with the support of Greens MP Adam Bandt, Tasmanian independent Andrew Wilkie and the rural independents Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott. The Coalition's numbers swell to 74 with the support of the West Australian Nationals MP Tony Crook and the independent Bob Katter: conservatives in conservative electorates.

When voters next go to the polls, the ageing Windsor is unlikely to contest (although he hasn't as yet announced plans to retire) and the much younger Oakeshott will have a serious credibility problem because of the way he has handled himself lately. You could almost consider the Coalition the favourite to win both seats (they were previously held by the Nationals), which effectively means it enters the electoral contest with a seats advantage.

A status quo result certainly won't do for the government. It needs to find a way to build on its present configuration of seats, which isn't unheard of, with governments having done so in 1993, 2001 and 2004. But this time it is going to be hard, especially if the government can't get clean air to sell its credentials.

The recent election loss for Labor in Victoria may make holding the large number of seats it has in the south hard for Gillard, although federal Labor will be hoping that because voters likely will have seen the back of state Labor in NSW and Queensland before the feds go to the polls, it will make winning seats in both states more likely.

The political divide to be watched next year will be the approach the two main parties take to issues affecting the two types of states across the nation: the mining states and the old manufacturing centres. Queensland and Western Australia voted in droves for the Coalition this year, just as Tasmania, South Australia and Victoria did for Labor. NSW is up for grabs, finely balanced courtesy of strong campaigning by Labor at the last election.

Labor plans to press ahead with its new mining tax, notwithstanding the debate that will hot up in the months ahead as to how it treats state royalties. Doing so is an appealing approach in non-mining centres, but entrenches the Coalition's advantage in the mining states.

The pivotal question for the electoral viability of the government is what happens in NSW: do the Labor Party's stocks rise with the death of NSW Labor at state level and courtesy of extra funding provided by the redistributive benefits of the mining tax? Or is Labor's reputation so tarnished that it can't recover so soon after a state drubbing?

And focusing on the important role of NSW in the coming year highlights that the state can't be viewed as a homogeneous entity. The western Sydney marginal seats vote very differently from those seats located in the state's coastal southern and northern corridors. Then there are the inner-city seats dominated by Labor but under constant threat from the presence of the Greens. If Labor does try to appeal to voters in the mortgage belt parts of the state, how the Liberals choose to award their preferences in inner-city areas could decide the fate of high-profile Labor frontbenchers such as Anthony Albanese and Tanya Plibersek.

A fracturing of Australian society, whether it occurs between states or within them, naturally favours oppositions because they aren't the ones taking the daily decisions that upset people. That only becomes the opposition's concern once it wins power.

The conclusion, therefore, is that unless the Coalition turns on itself, it is the government that will have the tougher time next year. Whether it's policy, personal animosities flowing from the events of late last year, or the divisions in Australian society, Labor is the party likely to be hardest hit by these difficulties. And in a 24-hour news cycle you can learn about their problems every step of the way, making it a hard hurdle for Gillard to overcome.


Immigration starts deporting Papua New Guineans claiming Australian citizenship

IMMIGRATION officials will tonight begin deporting the group of 119 Papua New Guinean protesters who came to Australia by boat on Wednesday, just as another boatload is due to arrive.

Department of Immigration and Citizenship spokesman Sandi Logan said the protesters would begin to be deported by charter plane tonight, with the rest to follow. "We've got a plane going out shortly with the first load and then further flights in the morning and we'll have it all completed on Christmas Day," he said.

The group spent last night on Horn Island in a Customs detention centre and tents which had to be set up after facility was unable cope with the large number of people.

He said Customs intercepted the latest boat, believed to contain about 10 PNG nationals, late yesterday and they would spend the night on Horn Island before being returned alongside the other protesters tomorrow. "This group is all being returned and it's taken an enormous effort by the department to secure at very short notice charter aircraft, obviously at expense to the Australian taxpayer," he said.

The protesters are part of an organisation called Papua Australia Plaintiff United Affiliates, and believe they should be recognised as Australian citizens after losing their citizenship in 1975 when Papua New Guinea gained independence from Australia.

But Mr Logan said a 2005 High Court decision had upheld the Australian law regarding the claims of the group and anyone seeking citizenship needed to follow official channels. "If they believe they have a right to Australian citizenship, as they have been told repeatedly, they must lodge an application at the Australian High Commission in Port Moresby," he said.


Illegality pays

The story of a seeker after asylum in Australia

Hussein knows about 100 people who have taken their chances on smugglers' fishing boats in the past two years. In that time he has relocated to Puncak from another refugee program in Lombok.

All made it safely, as far as he knows. None was caught in the SIEV 221 horror last week. Hardly anyone he knows would be discouraged if they had already decided to go. One of those who went is Hussein's cousin, Ahmad, some are friends, most were just recent acquaintances: "I meet them in the market, it's good to talk to other Arabs, and they say in two days they will go to the boats; it's like hello-goodbye."

Hussein (whose real name has been withheld so not to further diminish his visa prospects) came from Baghdad where he worked as a video news cameraman.

He said he was threatened too often in the course of his work and, apparently, there was also a blood feud between his family and another. He arrived in Jakarta in early 2007 with a proper passport, about $US1000 and the intention of getting to Australia, but through the front door. "We have a saying that if one man knocks on the door and the other answers, both should be happy. I didn't want to sneak in like a thief.

But after almost four years in the UN High Commissioner for Refugee system, Hussein has moved no further than from Lombok to Puncak, a traffic-choked straggle of markets, shabby hotels, high-end resorts and mosques along 25km of the main road from Jakarta into the rain-drenched mountains.

However, the odds were dramatically more favourable, seven chances in 10, when cousin Ahmad arrived on Christmas Island late last year, though without refugee status and very much unwelcomed by the Australian government. Roughly 70 per cent of boat arrivals in the past decade have been granted refugee status and allowed Australian residency.

Hussein says when Ahmad phoned him recently he was already out of detention, living in Sydney and working as a men's hairdresser.

As the odds predicted, Ahmad jumped the queue and was rewarded by the system. Hussein stayed in his place and fell further behind. There couldn't be a better advertisement for the traffickers' service.

Or the mess that Australian refugee policy has now got itself into, with the niggardly distribution of visas in Indonesia - 550 between 2001 and last year - overwhelmed by this year's surge of more than 6230 boatpeople. For the first time this year, boat-borne asylum-seekers in Australia will outnumber those coming by aircraft.

But whereas only about 20 per cent of aircraft arrivals are accepted as refugees, the success rate for boatpeople is 70 per cent or greater.

And when they succeed, asylum-seekers occupy places in the overall humanitarian intake - currently 13,750 annually - that might have been taken by other displaced and victimised people, usually poorer and often more downtrodden.

When Julia Gillard and her ministers talk about "smashing the people-smugglers' business model", they neglect to acknowledge that these perverse consequences of Australia's current system are the key to the traffickers' success.

"The current approach massively disadvantages the people who are playing by the rules, firstly, and, secondly, those who don't have finances to be as mobile as the asylum-seekers," says Mirko Bagaric, a Deakin University law professor who spent five years as a member of the Refugee Review Tribunal.

Writing in The Australian this week, Mr Bagaric argued that boatpeople benefited unfairly at the expense of other refugees because of an undue reverence in legal and political human rights circles for the outdated asylum provisions of the 1951 Convention Relating to the State of Refugees.

However, he said yesterday, modern asylum-seekers claim preferential treatment "by having the temerity to force themselves on us, though you can't blame them for that . . . and having sufficient money to be mobile enough to do so".

Now, however, Mr Bagaric warns, boat arrivals are in such volumes that they threaten to overwhelm the country's whole refugee process.

"By the end of next year, at the current rate of increase, all 13,750 places will be filled by people who have forced themselves on us," says Mr Bagaric. "The whole quota will be filled by people who have self-selected."

He has proposed a dramatic solution: more than doubling the offshore refugee intake to 30,000 annually while at same time permanently refusing refugee status "to any person who arrives on our shores unannounced".

People-smugglers are currently succeeding, Mr Bagaric says, because their clients have the will and financial wherewithal to impose themselves on Australia's refugee system ahead of all the other claimants.

"Fine, but that's not the basis for enhanced moral concern or preferential treatment - in other areas of life, the fact that one person is more pushy than the others shouldn't qualify them for better treatment."


1 comment:

Paul said...

Merry Christmas to you and yours, and a prosperous new year. May the lunacy that keeps us all morbidly interested continue unabated, as I'm sure it will.