Limits on advertising dangerous for democracy
By Andrew Norton
Earlier this week, the Australian Electoral Commission released figures on political expenditure for 2009–10. Australia’s miners reported spending $22 million on their campaign against the mining super-profits tax. In 2007–08, the union movement spent a record $28 million on their fight against WorkChoices. Both the miners and the unions succeeded in getting policies altered.
Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald on Wednesday, columnist Peter Hartcher concurred with a 2007 Liberal Party view that spending on this scale is a ‘dangerous development for democracy.’ He feared that interest groups could veto policy, making it harder to implement needed reforms. Views of course differ on the merits of the mining tax and WorkChoices. But if governments launch major policy attacks on sections of Australian society, it can hardly be dangerous for democracy if their targets respond noisily and forcefully. This is what democracy is all about – differing views being expressed, with the public ultimately deciding who is most persuasive.
The real dangerous developments for democracy are the various attempts by governments to curb these protests. New South Wales has already imposed a state election campaign spending limit of just over $1 million for groups not standing for office. The Queensland government proposes an even more restrictive $500,000 for its state election campaigns. A promised federal review of election laws will almost certainly canvas similar political expenditure controls. Governments are protecting themselves from their critics.
What could be left uncapped is government propaganda. The AEC’s disclosure system does not apply to government, and so misses our biggest source of political advertising. Labor budgeted nearly $40 million for a campaign in favour of the mining tax, and the Coalition spent an estimated $55 million of taxpayers’ money promoting WorkChoices. Restricting non-government spending without controlling government advertising would further imbalance the political system in favour of the state.
It’s pretty obvious why political parties want to nobble their opponents. But I cannot understand why political expenditure laws get so little criticism from everyone else.
The above is a press release from the Centre for Independent Studies, dated 4 Feb. Enquiries to email@example.com. Snail mail: PO Box 92, St Leonards, NSW, Australia 1590.
Australia’s familiar past
By Dr Oliver Marc Hartwich
Magic happens in old books. The thoughts and observations of writers long deceased come alive at the turn of yellowed pages. Deciphering antique fonts, touching dried-out leather covers and smelling aged paper, there is no more sensual bridge to the past.
It is surprising, however, how much of this magic still sparkles even in an electronic copy. Thanks to the digitalisation of the world’s great libraries, little treasures are now available at a mouse-click from your home computer.
A Swiss newspaper recently asked me to write an essay on the cultural relationship between Australia and the Old World. During my research, I stumbled on this book about Australia on Google Books. Written by an obscure German author and published in Leipzig in 1870, it got me hooked after the first few pages. The excitement was not so much because the book had opened a window into Australia’s history. It was rather because the past sounded so much like the present.
The author reports almost breathlessly about Australia’s remarkable economic achievements of the previous decades. The country is in the grip of a commodity boom, although the term for it at the time was ‘gold rush.’ Australia’s bustling cities are growing fast and are described as world class by the German visitor.
It is fascinating what the writer has to say about Melbourne in the last 1860s. Though only really established some 30 years earlier, the city already shows many of the landmarks of today’s Melbourne. The main newspapers are called The Herald and The Age; the State Library and Parliament House had just opened; and there was Chinatown in Little Bourke Street.
The Australians in the book come across as practical, hard-working and civic-minded. After the catastrophic floods in the Nepean district in 1867, Sydneysiders donated large amounts of money to help with the reconstruction. Apparently, the event was followed by a long discussion about building dams to prevent any such events in the future. At least Australians of the time escaped an extra tax to pay for them.
A dip into Australia’s history, seen through the eyes of a foreigner, is revealing. The pragmatism and egalitarianism so closely associated with Australia today are certainly not an invention of our times. Australia has obviously changed over the past 140 years, but perhaps not quite as much as we think.
As for the magic that is happening on yellowed pages, I couldn’t resist ordering a physical copy of the book from an antiquarian dealer.
Fortunately, some things have changed since the book was published: I won’t have to wait three months for it to arrive from Europe.
The above is a press release from the Centre for Independent Studies, dated 4 Feb. Enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org. Snail mail: PO Box 92, St Leonards, NSW, Australia 1590.
Gillard dumps Rudds health reform
JULIA Gillard is preparing to dump Kevin Rudd's plan to make the Commonwealth the dominant funder of hospitals, favouring an alternative model so unpopular among states that any hope of reaching a national health reform agreement appears lost.
After 12 months of wrangling with the states and the signing of a historic health funding agreement in Canberra last year, the Federal Government is developing a new model to deliver its funding directly to hospitals, and without the states receiving promised funds for expenditure growth and capital works, The Weekend Australian reports.
In an attempt to finalise the new health funding agreement before the meeting of state and federal leaders in Canberra on February 14, the Federal Government has put forward a tough new proposal from Treasury and Prime Minister and Cabinet.
The aggressive action threatens to cost states that do not agree $15 billion in new funding with almost $5bn slated for NSW, $3.8bn for Victoria and $1.7bn for Western Australia.
Ms Gillard's new position was relayed to state officials by Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Terry Moran at Melbourne's Sarti Restaurant and Bar on Thursday night. Somewhat pointedly, it happened without the involvement of Department of Health head Jane Halton.
Mr Moran reportedly said the Prime Minister's position was not negotiable - something the states took as a sign Ms Gillard was adopting a "crash or crash through" attitude - and would be outlined in a commonwealth paper at the next Council Of Australian Governments meeting on February 14.
While interpretations of the Gillard model differ, several state government sources told The Weekend Australian there would no longer be any clawback of the GST - a key sticking point for Victoria and Western Australia - but, in return, the Commonwealth would revert to its original position of funding only 40 per cent of the health system.
Mr Rudd - after initially threatening to take over state-run hospitals if he could not achieve reform - struck a deal that would have made the Commonwealth the dominant funder, taking 60 per cent responsibility, including future growth, in exchange for roughly 30 per cent of the states' GST payments.
Furthermore, the Commonwealth contribution would no longer go into state pools to be distributed to hospital networks, but directly to the planned hospital networks themselves, perhaps from a national pool or via a Medicare mechanism, which has previously been questioned by Western Australia.
Last night, sources in one state said the Gillard model was "about a finance grab, not about health reforms", while others remained unsure of the detail and whether Mr Moran was acting with the imprimatur of the Prime Minister.
Ms Gillard would not comment, Mr Moran could not be contacted, and Health Minister Nicola Roxon's office would only say that the negotiations, which some described as fast-moving, and ever-changing, would continue ahead of COAG.
Corporate advertisers insist on rigid political correctness
GRAHAM Young is the founding editor of a well-regarded e-journal called On Line Opinion, and is a regular contributor to The Australian. I'd describe him as belonging in the centre of the political spectrum, perhaps tending to mild conservatism.
In December he published a piece arguing the case against gay marriage by the pro-family campaigner, Bill Muehlenberg, and then a series of spirited exchanges on the merits of the argument. It was not the first article he'd run on the subject ; that honour had gone to Rodney Croome, a gay activist. Nor were most of the essays run opposed to gay marriage.
Young commented on the blog in mid-December. "The On Line Opinion approach is one that many find difficult to accept, and we are currently under attack from a number of gay activists because we dared to publish [Muehlenberg's essay] which is mostly a pastiche of comments by gay activists, even though the majority of articles I can find on the site support gay marriage. And by attack I mean attempting to intimidate me, sponsors or advertisers. How ironic . . . when we are sponsoring the Human Rights Awards."
When I spoke to him on Wednesday, Young said it wasn't the first time advertisers had made life hard. A group called Ethical Investments had objected after their ads sometimes appeared on pages alongside articles questioning anthropogenic global warming.
On account of the Muehlenberg piece, Young told me two major advertisers had just pulled out: the ANZ Bank and IBM. Comparing this year's January gross ad sales with last year's, he calculated that revenue from his main category of advertising had fallen by 96 per cent. Young is worried that these bizarre decisions will adversely affect other websites as well as his own and could even lead to some of them closing down.
Courts might construe that as the result of an indiscriminate secondary boycott, in contravention of the Trade Practices Act.
That's because Young and a group of other political sites have formed a network called The Domain, to bundle up their readers as a more attractive package for advertisers. The sites are very diverse in terms of ideology, from the ultra-leftist John Passant, to the more mainstream centre-Left Larvatus Prodeo, Club Troppo, Andrew Bartlett, skepticlawyer and the likes of Henry Thornton and Jennifer Marohasy.
Obviously I don't agree with much of what some of them say and the tone of some is more virulent than you'd find in the letters page of The Australian. But clearly they have a right to exist and issues of principle are at stake here that go to the freedom of political debate in this country and the character of our civilisation.
I share the view most editors and journalists once took for granted. Almost any rational argument, no matter how abhorrent, deserves a run.
Aside from advocating terrorism, the only exceptions that come to mind are pieces casting doubts on the existence of the Holocaust and apologias for legalising sex with children or animals.
If anyone is proposing to compromise the freedom of political debate on Australian blogs, it shouldn't happen without a full debate and, like most people, I'd rather it weren't big corporations making the decisions.
So I approached the public relations people at IBM and the ANZ Bank, to find out whether the decision to punish an article against gay marriage by withdrawing their ads was corporate policy.
It seemed inherently unlikely that those organisations would want to express a view either way on such a contentious social issue, let alone in doing so to make decisions that put the survival of other, independent political blogs with a range of positions on the issue in some degree of jeopardy.
It also occurred to me that the sums were small enough - thousands of dollars a month, rather than tens of thousands - so that the decisions might have been taken at one remove, perhaps by the delegated authority of an advertising agency which might be trying to exercise some "soft pink power". In 20-odd years as a magazine editor, I sometimes encountered that sort of malarky.
The initial responses from the PR people in both corporations was that it was news to them and they'd get back to me before my deadline. The ANZ's Stephen Ries replied first. "ANZ does not advertise on any opinion-type websites that may cause offence or segregate any individuals or group. In this instance our advertising was placed through an automatic advertising placement service and once we were alerted to the content we removed our advertising.
"The removal of our advertising should not be viewed as a violation of free speech; it's simply that we choose not to advertise on blogs that do not align to our organisational values."
Oh, brave new world! Apparently anything less than uncritical endorsement of gay marriage no longer aligns with the ANZ's organisational values. What's more, the loss of ad revenue to all the blogs in the Domain network, irrespective of each site's stance on the issue, is neither here nor there and has nothing to do with their freedom of speech.
It's also worth noting that despite the blanket assurances of not advertising on opinion websites, the ANZ was advertising on [Leftist] New Matilda on Friday.
IBM's Matt Mollett's reply was more gnomic. "To optimise reach with its target audiences, IBM continuously reviews and refines its advertising strategy based on a range of considerations, including demographics and content."
Young suspects that the peg on which to hang the internal decision to withdraw advertising within both organisations was a code developed by IASH, the Internet Advertising Sales Houses, which he declined to sign.
The code is a triumph of political correctness gone mad, and badly needs rewriting. Schedule C provides that IASH Australia members "are forbidden to place advertising on sites containing barred content - in other words, any of the inventory defined below - in any circumstances. Content articulating views intended or reasonably likely to cause or incite hatred of any race, religion, creed, class or ethnic group. Content articulating views calculated to cause offence to or incite hatred of any individual or group."
The last sentence is the loopiest in the schedule. It forbids anything that might offend anyone. This would neuter not just contentious articles but the free flow of comment on them that gives blogs their character. As Young says, this section threatens any Australian discussion site. "No newspaper could sign up to this and have discussion threads that were anything other than anodyne."
Apart from making hay with the issue of free speech, I expect the other blogs will kick up a huge fuss, online and in court, about being incidental victims of a secondary boycott. Skepticlawyer blog's Helen Dale, with expertise at the bar and a gift for self-promotion, should have a field day.
Victoria's Education Minister Martin Dixon launches new bid to restore order in classrooms
TEACHERS will seize back control of their classrooms from unruly students under a bid to restore discipline in Victorian schools. The new Baillieu Government will next week push for new laws allowing principals to search students, lockers and school bags for weapons and other dangerous items.
Education Minister Martin Dixon also wants to reverse students' declining respect for authority. He wants to put a stop to bad language, sloppy dress and mobile phones in class.
It follows a surge in schoolyard violence, with Victorian schools now reporting more than 12 assaults every week. Over the past decade, the number of students aged 10-14 committing violent acts has jumped by 80 per cent. "Put simply, violent behaviour in the school yard will not be tolerated," said Mr Dixon, a former principal with 15 years' experience.
"These new powers will ensure principals and teachers have clear authority to maintain order and safety in schools. "We want to send a strong message that we will protect that authority."
Mr Dixon said restoring respect was his top priority. "There's a growing number of parents that have got a lack of respect for any level of authority, whether it be police or school principals," he said. "(And) there's an increasing use and threat of violence in schools. "Assaults, verbal or physical, on teachers and principals used to be unheard of, but they do occur now. It is an issue. We've got to protect principals from that too."
Under the legislation to be debated in Parliament next week, principals would have the power to order students to open lockers and school bags, and turn out their pockets, to prove they were not carrying weapons. Any potentially dangerous items - including glass bottles, sporting equipment and trade tools - could be confiscated.
The legislation would not permit teachers to conduct body searches, but would legally protect them for handling prohibited items, such as knives or guns, before handing them over to police.
Mr Dixon said he was personally opposed to mobile phones in classrooms, sloppy dressing and swearing in school grounds. But principals would set the rules and penalties in their own schools.
Victorian Principals Association president Gabrielle Leigh said the move would make schools safer.