Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Malaysian deal too cushy to be a deterrent to boat people

THE next 800 asylum seekers arriving by boat to Australia will be fingerprinted before being flown to Malaysia, where the federal government will pay for a month in a hotel plus a living allowance, under the controversial Malaysian refugee swap agreement signed yesterday.

New transit centres in Kuala Lumpur, where asylum seekers will be processed within 45 days, are expected to be ready in weeks for the first arrivals. Malaysia will have the right to reject any asylum seekers if they are on terrorism lists or have serious criminal convictions. Australia will also screen the 4000 refugees it accepts from Malaysia in return as part of the deal.

Yesterday the Immigration Minister, Chris Bowen, said asylum seekers would have the right to work in Malaysia, a breakthrough in a country where 95,000 refugees cannot work legally.

Yet he rejected suggestions that the special treatment asylum seekers would receive would encourage refugees to take boats to Australia. "Critics may say asylum seekers transferred from Australia to Malaysia are getting too good a deal," he said. "On the other side, people may say the arrangements aren't strong enough. We've struck a good balance that ensures appropriate protections."

After facing heavy public criticism of his country's treatment of refugees, Malaysia's Home Affairs Minister, Hishammuddin Hussein, said Malaysia would be judged by the results of the scheme, and was committed to treating refugees with dignity. "The UNHCR will be there to monitor and safeguard the standards that we have set," he said.

Malaysian police officials and representatives of the International Organisation for Migration and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees were present at the signing, while a small group of activists and opposition politicians protested outside the hotel.

The UNHCR said in a statement it was not a signatory to the deal and would prefer to see boat arrivals to Australia processed in Australia, but both governments had consulted the organisation. Mr Bowen said there would be no blanket exemption for unaccompanied children but the UNHCR's feedback had shaped the document and the agency would be involved in processing both groups of asylum seekers - unlike the Howard government's so-called Pacific solution.

The deal commits Australia to funding schooling for children, and health costs. But these will be the basic facilities used by refugees in Malaysia.

The Greens condemned the deal.

The opposition spokesman on immigration, Scott Morrison, said the swap sought to counteract the "pull" factors of Labor's previous border protection policy, as a result of which 230 boats had arrived since Labor formed government.

The government also announced a reversal of its position on the 567 asylum seekers who had arrived by boat since the in-principle agreement was announced 11 weeks ago, saying they would now be processed in Australia.

Originally the government said they would be held pending removal to another country, either Malaysia or Papua New Guinea. The government is working to seal a deal with PNG.

To ensure asylum seekers knew of the deal, Ms Gillard said the government would embark on an information campaign in Indonesia and other departure points to raise awareness of the folly of boarding a boat. "Do not do that in the false hope that you will be able to have your claim processed in Australia," she said.


Lawsuits no way to defend privacy or free speech

JULIA Gillard's retribution over her perceived enemies in the press has latched on to an extremist rights agenda that would reregulate free speech and encourage a more litigious society.

Her Justice Minister Brendan O'Connor has been directed to respond to the News of the World phone hacking scandal by making it easier for Australians to sue media companies for invasions of privacy. Such journalistic practice already is illegal in Britain and Australia. And there is no evidence of such Fleet Street "red top" outrages here.

But O'Connor claims that "mass breaches" here highlight that Australia has "no general right to privacy" and thus "no certainty for anyone wanting to sue for a breach of privacy".

So the left-wing junior minister from Victoria has dusted off a 2008 Australian Law Reform Commission privacy report which, from page 2535 of its third volume, argues for an extremist "tort of invasion of privacy".

Yet, as the ALRC has argued previously, the concept of a general tort of privacy is vague and nebulous, a concern repeated a decade ago by then High Court chief justice Murray Gleeson. The Law Council of Australia more recently has backed the existing "appropriate and adequate recourse to individuals who consider that a media organisation has interfered with their privacy".

But to understand the issue, it first has to be removed from the grip of the lawyers, particularly those with a rights agenda or a political grudge. For the economic issue is that digital technology has slashed the cost of gathering, analysing and distributing information, including about people.

This has raised a host of issues from ensuring that banks and hospitals keep personal financial and health records confidential, to closed circuit cameras following people's every move, to alarm that sex partners could post explicit video clips on YouTube.

But it still has been an overwhelmingly good thing, providing cheaper access to services and allowing people to bypass traditional media to communicate directly among themselves.

The new digital technology also reduces the gatekeeper role of the traditional media: anything seems to go in social media. Yet, exploiting the NOTW scandal, Labor's privacy tort is aimed at traditional media companies because they are a political target and because they still have deeper pockets than some random blogger or hacker.

The legal trick is to conflate the various digital concerns into a new form of property right: a general tort against invasion of personal privacy akin to someone breaking into your property or a home invasion. Conventional private property rights are a foundation of a democratic market economy. But a property right over individual privacy necessarily intrudes into a more basic foundation of an open society: free speech.

O'Connor fudges around this. And sensible people, such as my old mate Barrie Cassidy on the ABC's Insiders on Sunday, find it hard to understand why anyone could caution against protecting people's privacy.

The objection is that elevating privacy to a fundamental human right is designed to get around the problem that protecting it is not costless. It aims to avoid having to measure the extent of the actual problem and to figure out the most effective ways to deal with it.

Hence, the Victorian lawyers' guild argues against "any selective analysis of the costs and benefits" of the state's charter of human rights now being reviewed by the Baillieu government.

Yet getting a handle on who actually benefits, by how much and at what cost to others is central to good regulation.

There is ample evidence of the costs of allowing such open-ended rights to take root in the legal system. Before being reined in over the past decade, allowing people to sue for injury to their reputation or even honour became an Australian legal absurdity that transferred money from deep-pocketed media companies to politicians and defamation lawyers.

Even judicial officers began to exploit this legal protection racket. Without any proof of actual injury to reputation, damages for mere slights ballooned to way beyond payouts for serious workplace accidents or for common assault.

Like privacy, people's reputations are more than their own business. People rely on the reputations of those from whom they buy food, trust with their savings, take medical advice or leave their children to care for. Protecting both reputations and privacy restricts others from being properly informed by the marketplace of free speech.

Again like protecting privacy, it similarly sounds only just that those whose negligence causes injury to others should be made to pay. But not when the lawyer-controlled courts stretch the concept so far that the public liability premiums for a local fete, a surf club sausage sizzle or a local playground become prohibitive or if insurance companies refuse to cover the risks of medical surgery.

Just as defamation and negligence torts have been reformed, however, the privacy tort push has gathered momentum with the European human rights agenda, been transmitted to Britain (where it mostly has enriched celebrities) and then transported to Australia via a few activist lower court judges. This has created such uncertainty, argues the ALRC, that a whole new privacy tort needs to be legislated.

The absurdities already extend to defining as private what happens in public spaces. On the weekend, my 77-year-old father went back to the historic North Sydney pool underneath Sydney Harbour Bridge where he swam in schoolboy competitions. He was told he could not photograph the public pool because of privacy concerns of those swimming in it.

Languishing in the polls, the Prime Minister demands that News Corporation's Australian arm answer unspecified "hard questions" over the NOTW phone hacking scandal. The Greens leader who props up her government, Bob Brown, calls The Australian the "hate media" and pushes for an inquiry into breaking up News Limited.

Communications Minister and Labor factional warlord Stephen Conroy complains that another Murdoch paper, Sydney's The Daily Telegraph, is inciting "regime change", inviting the probity concern that media regulation could be influenced by politics.

Yet Gillard's privacy tort threatens all the media, not just those Labor seeks to intimidate. Putting the whole media offside is a bizarre strategy for a Prime Minister languishing in the polls and trying to sell a tax she promised never to introduce.


More government waste

TAXPAYERS are paying up to $8.32 per prescription to supply paracetamol to pensioners under the nation's drug subsidy scheme, when the same medicine can be bought for just $1.89 at any discount chemist.

The waste is occurring as the government comes under fire from 60 health consumer groups, doctors, academics and drug companies for delaying subsidies for new drugs to treat schizophrenia, lung disease, pain and blood clots in a bid to save money.

The cost to taxpayers of a doctor prescribing paracetamol to a pensioner under the drug subsidy scheme comes to $43.22 per visit. This includes the $34.90 cost to Medicare of the doctor's visit to get the script, plus the $8.32 in fees paid to pharmacists under the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme for a pack of 100 tablets.

Medicare Australia's website shows that more than 467,000 scripts for paracetamol were dispensed under the PBS in the 12 months to June, costing taxpayers $2.26 million.

Normally pensioners pay a $5.60 co-payment towards the $8.32 cost of paracetamol under the PBS, and the government pays the $2.72 balance.

In this case, pensioners would be better off buying the medicine at a discount chemist or a supermarket because it costs them nearly three times more under the PBS than a pack of the same 100 tablets does over the counter at a discount chemist.

However, once a pensioner has spent more than $336 a year on PBS medicines they qualify for the PBS Safety Net and receive medicines free. Then the government pays the full $8.32 cost of paracetamol under the PBS.

Paracetamol is just one of a number of examples of the government paying much more for medicines under the PBS than they cost in a supermarket.

Selsun Blue anti-dandruff shampoo, supplied to veterans under the Repatriation Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, costs taxpayers $14.14 but can be bought for $6.34 at a supermarket. Metamucil costs $21.67 under the scheme but just $12.99 at a discount chemist and $13.77 at a supermarket. Laxatives for veterans cost $13.86 under the subsidy scheme but just $6.99 at a discount chemist.

The cost of paracetamol to the government is inflated because it has to pay chemists a dispensing fee of $6.42 for each script, a pharmacy mark-up of 15 per cent, a wholesale mark-up of 7.52 per cent and an incentive fee of $1.53 if a generic version is dispensed.

The waste over paracetamol comes amid claims by Sydney University academic Philip Clarke that $1.66 billion could be saved if Australia paid the same price as Britain for generic anti-cholesterol lowering drugs.

The Australian reported this month that the cholesterol-lowering drug simvastatin cost $3 a month in Britain and an average of $6.42 internationally but Australians pay $31.18 for it under the PBS.

Professor Clarke said the paracetamol example raised the economic question of why these sorts of medicines were not dropped from the PBS so new medicines could be funded.

Consumer's Health Forum chief Carol Bennett said the high cost of paracetamol under the PBS showed the government could improve efforts to save money. A spokeswoman for Acting Health Minister Mark Butler said that when paracetamol was previously removed from the PBS, it resulted in higher cost, less appropriate and less safe painkillers being prescribed, which actually increased the overall cost of the PBS. It was therefore quickly relisted because of these unintended consequences.

"Given the low PBS spend on paracetamol, and the high likelihood of cost increases if it's delisted, removing it from the PBS would not assist government to offset the cost of proposed new listings," the spokeswoman said.

Patients in chronic pain were unlikely to visit doctors just to access paracetamol on the PBS but would alsoseek advice for other health problems, she said.



Cuddle your dog to beat global warming?

Primitive tribes do this -- and have very short lifespans. But that suits the Greenies, obviously

WANT to save money on power bills this winter? Despite a 2009 study finding the average dog has an environmental footprint twice that of a large 4WD, the government's Living Greener website claims you will save money and feel "chuffed" by following its pet-friendly advice.

With power bills expected to jump by 10 per cent when the carbon tax begins next July, other tips include using leftovers in soups and casseroles, ditching the second family car, playing board games or going to the library to get warm.

Even having a hot shower is a no-no, with the government urging you to get out sooner and stand under a heat lamp or warm a bathrobe.

But if you do use electricity and watch TV, hugging a pet or family member to keep warm is recommended. "To reduce the energy you use watching TV, take another tip from grandma and share the warmth," the site says. "Snuggle up under a rug, snuggle with your family or cuddle your favourite pet. You could avoid the TV and snuggle up in bed with a good book or with someone who's read one lately."

A photograph of children cuddling a dog and cat accompanies the advice on the site.

The recommendations come after New Zealand architects Robert and Brenda Vale calculated a medium-sized dog had twice the emissions of a 4WD once the amount of land required to feed the pet was taken into account.

"Families are already doing all they can to save electricity but these suggestions are making a joke of a very serious issue for families and pensioners," opposition climate spokesman Greg Hunt said.


Another hit on the taxpayers by the Green bureaucracy

$20m green house for federal climate change bureaucrats

THE Federal Government is spending more than $20 million fitting out a brand new Canberra high-rise to house bureaucrats tackling climate change.

The Climate Change and Energy Efficiency Department will move 750 of its bureaucrats into offices in the new building. Due for completion next year, the NewActon Nishi building includes "electric car charging facilities". This comes as the Government is also spending $12 million on an advertising campaign for its carbon tax.

Liberal Senator Simon Birmingham yesterday said the Government seemed to have a "repetitive disregard for the value of taxpayers' hard-earned money".

But the department argues its current building is inadequate for accommodating staff and the new building will have the highest energy efficiency rating and reduce costs.

A spokesman for Climate Change Minister Greg Combet said bureaucrats moved into new accommodation under the Coalition government and "there is nothing different here".

Meanwhile, a Deloitte Access Economics quarterly report released today says the impact of the carbon tax will be more muted than has been claimed. "Although the eventual structural change in Australia's economy will be large, the initial impact is unlikely to come with a bang," the report says.


No coal compo for Queensland

JULIA Gillard has rejected pleas from Premier Anna Bligh for extra compensation for state-owned power stations that will be hit by the carbon tax.

The Prime Minister said Ms Bligh had not taken into account how much the state's green energy power assets would increase in value when the state sought $1.7 billion for expected losses to its coal-fired generators.

Ms Gillard said the state was welcome to propose minor changes to details in the carbon tax legislation, but ruled out any major overhaul to compensation.

"The package we announced is the package we'll deliver," Ms Gillard said. She said the Queensland Government would gain a windfall from "the asset appreciation that their clean energy generation assets will experience as a result of our package to put a price on carbon pollution."

"I don't see the Queensland Government volunteering to send that asset appreciation back to the Federal Government and nor would I expect them to," she said.

Queensland Treasurer Andrew Fraser's spokesman said the state was still assessing the impact of the tax on renewable energy.

Ms Gillard also rejected reports that she had proposed a climate change policy that did not include a carbon tax or emissions trading scheme before she became prime minister in a bid to secure a bipartisan deal with Tony Abbott.

The comments came as industry warned of billion-dollar losses to the Queensland Government, farms and businesses from a carbon tax but admitted that it would not kill economic growth in the state.

Queensland Resources Council chief executive Michael Roche told a Senate inquiry in Brisbane that the premature closure of mines and the scrapping of planned coal mines would mean $1 billion loss in royalties for the State Government by 2020. "I don't understand why our State Government is not highlighting this impact on the state's finances," Mr Roche said.

There would be further losses to the State Government because the electricity generators, which face the biggest cost impact, were unlikely to ever pay another dividend to the Government, Mr Roche said.

The industry would lose another $100 million a year through changes in the fuel excise while some mines face a tax of $50 a tonne, compared with the $2 a tonne average.

Under questioning from Labor's Senator Doug Cameron, Mr Roche said there would still be growth in the Queensland coal industry but it would also be handing over some of its growth to overseas competitors.


Union joins business to savage ALP

ONE of the nation's biggest trade unions has turned on the Gillard government, savaging Workplace Relations Minister Chris Evans as incompetent and unworthy of his office.

Days after strident criticism of the government by business leaders, Transport Workers Union national secretary Tony Sheldon yesterday likened Senator Evans to a corpse, accusing him of failing to implement Labor policy and endangering the lives of truck drivers.

The condemnation, rejected by Senator Evans, came as a trio of senior ministers dismissed a claim by Suncorp chairman-elect Ziggy Switkowski that there was " a whiff of illegitimacy" about the government.

Wayne Swan, Assistant Treasurer Bill Shorten and Climate Change Minister Greg Combet accused business critics of acting out of self interest, vowing the government would stick to its guns on the carbon tax and govern in the national interest.

Labor has suffered a series of poor results in opinion polls, including a weekend poll suggesting Julia Gillard was losing support in her Melbourne electorate.

Despite a rise from record lows in today's Newspoll, Labor has its back to the wall as it campaigns to win public support for the $23-a-tonne tax to be introduced next July.

While the government has anticipated attacks from businesses affected by the tax, it was blind sided by Mr Sheldon's assault, based on the fact the impost -- which he on Friday called a "death tax" -- will apply to the heavy transport industry from 2014.

Mr Sheldon, whose 90,000- member union represents truck drivers, wants the government to prevent trucking companies from passing the cost impact to drivers and owner-drivers. The TWU argues that passing on the costs to drivers will lift stress and drive up accident and fatality rates on roads, not just for truck drivers, but also for all motorists.

Speaking on the Sky News Australian Agenda program yesterday, Mr Sheldon said Labor had contested the past two elections promising to act on driver safety, but that Senator Evans had failed to act. "I have no confidence in Chris Evans's capacity to deal with the fundamental industrial relations issues in this country and the undertakings it will make working life in the trucking industry better and safer for all road users," Mr Sheldon said.

"If he cannot carry out his duties he should not be in the portfolio. There's a broad feeling that the minister has real deficiencies in carrying out his responsibilities as minister. He has not been able to implement government policy."

Mr Sheldon likened the minister to a corpse in the movie Weekend at Bernie's -- "the dead guy that stands in the middle", unable to act or perform his duties.

Senator Evans said the government had investigated the TWU's Safe Rates campaign, released a discussion paper, sought public submissions and was finalising a response.

"There's never any shortage of robust advice for industrial relations ministers, but it's unfortunate that Mr Sheldon has chosen to express his frustrations in the form of a personal attack," Senator Evans said. The Prime Minister backed Senator Evans. "Minister Evans is doing an outstanding job in an important portfolio," Ms Gillard said.

The exchange came as the government counterattacked in the face of business criticism fanned by the carbon tax. On Friday, Dr Switkowski, former Telstra chief and Suncorp chairman-elect, told a conference in Melbourne there was " a whiff of illegitimacy" surrounding the government while Westpac Bank chairman-elect Lindsay Maxsted said it was focused on short-term political gain ahead of the national interest.

Mr Shorten said it was not surprising some business people would criticise a government that was making decisions which did not promote their own interests.

"People are entitled to promote their sectional interests, but our Prime Minister and our government govern for all Australians and some of these business leaders won't be there in their positions in 10 years," Mr Shorten told the Sky News Australian Agenda program. "This country is doing better than some of the news reportage of it would indicate and some of the comments from some of these business leaders." Mr Shorten said Australia had rates of unemployment and debt that "the Yanks and the Europeans would give their eye teeth for".

And, while he noted Mr Maxsted had criticisms, he said Westpac was supportive of another government reform -- lifting compulsory superannuation contributions from 9 to 12 per cent. He said Qantas chairman Leigh Clifford, who on Friday was critical of industrial relations laws, had "quite a background in industrial relations".

"These guys have also got other agendas -- legitimate business agendas . . . but you sort of expect them to do that," he said.

Mr Combet said the carbon tax had been well-received by business as he rejected an ad campaign funded by an alliance of business groups as "Liberal Party ads".

It was important, Mr Combet said, not to assume that "one or two business people" critical of the government spoke for the entire business community. He told the Ten Network's Meet the Press program that since the carbon tax details were revealed a fortnight ago many business leaders had described it as workable.

"They are concerned about international conditions and the high value of the Australian dollar, for example, but generally I think the carbon pricing package has been pretty well received in the business community," he said.

Mr Swan also said businesses were continuing to invest in mining and that industrial cities like Gladstone were "powering ahead".

"Despite the reality on the ground, the well-funded vested interests are still out there trying to talk down the future of our economy, of our great industries like coal and LNG and of great towns like Gladstone," the Treasurer wrote in his weekly Economic Note.


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