Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Media inquiry just a tool to stifle critical comment

Starting a debate about media bias is one way to get the focus off the carbon tax

By Peter Costello, Federal treasurer from 1996 to 2007.

IN 1981 there was an inquiry into ownership and control of newspapers in Victoria by a retired Supreme Court judge. I worked on it as a lawyer representing Fairfax.

In 1991 there was a Commonwealth parliamentary inquiry into print media. It turned into a tour de force for Kerry Packer. I served on the committee as an MP.

Now the leader of the Greens, Senator Bob Brown, has come up with a new and novel idea - another inquiry into the media. He sees an opportunity arising from the phone hacking scandal in Britain. There is no doubt that this has exposed the low life of some journalism. But no one has suggested anything like that conduct occurred in Australia. And if it has, then those responsible should be prosecuted and punished. We don't need a media inquiry for that. We need a police investigation.
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So what is the case for another media inquiry in Australia? Brown is complaining of what he calls "the hate media". By this he does not mean media that advocate gay bashing or boycotts against Jewish business. By this he means media that are critical of the carbon tax that Julia Gillard promised not to introduce, is now introducing and which is opposed by 60 per cent of Australians.

Brown has suggested a new licensing regime so that newspapers can be published only by "a fit and proper" person. By definition, a person who spreads hate is not "fit and proper" to publish a newspaper. So there you have a neat little formula to strip an owner or threaten a newspaper with closure. If its coverage engenders "hatred" for certain policies, then you take away the licence.

Julia Gillard and Stephen Conroy seem to be keen on an inquiry. They are not silly enough to try to close down newspapers - no matter how critical they get. But they are smart enough to know that if an inquiry opens up ownership and regulation issues, they can promise benefits or withdraw privileges that may have a real financial effect on publishers. And with an inquiry under way, owners and their editors might be a little more careful about their criticism.

It is a good strategy. First of all, by starting a debate on media bias, they have cleverly shifted the discussion off the carbon tax. Which as you would have noticed is not going too well. Secondly, an inquiry could leave the media in a state of flux and uncertainty through to the next election.

In February 2010, Senator Conroy surprised financial markets by announcing a cut in television licence fees. He announced a rebate of 33 per cent in 2010 and 50 per cent in 2011 for the commercial networks. This is a government that cannot balance its budget. It has introduced a new flood tax. It complains that middle income earners get tax breaks. Yet it decided to cut tax for three wealthy companies by more than $200 million. Why, of all the taxpayers in Australia, do you think television networks were singled out for $200 million of tax breaks six months before an election?

Senator Conroy became a powerful factional boss in the ALP by rewarding friends and punishing enemies. He thinks he can run media policy along the same lines.

Those who want a licensing regime for newspapers point to the fact that television and radio stations need licences. So have you noticed that broadcasters in this country have higher standards than newspapers as a result? If it hasn't led to better broadcast standards, why would it affect print media? And there is a fundamental difference. Television and radio stations are licensed to use a public asset - the spectrum - for which they pay a fee. Newspapers do not use public resources. Introducing a new licence and fee regime for print would provide a mechanism for canny politicians to ingratiate themselves by offering rebates from time to time.

All my experience tells me that when a government begins to play around with new forms of media regulation what they really have in mind is content - in particular how to promote favourable comment and discourage critical comment.

In my time in politics, some of the most disgraceful reporting came from the ABC. But senators Brown and Conroy have no proposals for new regulation there. The proposals are aimed squarely at news media that they regard as critical.

Don't get me wrong. I am no fan of the Australian media. I have put up with distortions and misrepresentations too many to count. But allowing media to be free - including the freedom to be wrong - is one of those necessary things if we want to live in a democracy. And the proposals being bandied around now are not part of a considered plan to encourage flourishing critical media. In fact just the reverse.


Continuing riots and protests at Australian immigration detention centres

These are an excellent way of publicizing the fact that most illegals simply get locked up. They should deter future illegal arrivals

ANOTHER protest has broken out at the Christmas Island detention centre with at least three asylum seekers taking to the rooftop of the facility to wage a "peaceful protest".

The assistance of the Australian Federal Police was required overnight at the island's North West Point facility after about 50 detainees were involved in a disturbance.

The detainees caused damage to the centre and lit small fires, some in rubbish bins, which were quickly extinguished by detention centre managers Serco.

"There's been some disruptive behaviour within the compound overnight. The Australian Federal Police was called in to assist. It was serious enough to warrant their involvement," an Immigration Department spokesman said this morning.

By this morning, the AFP had restored order to the facility and the disruptive asylum seekers are now being monitored in the common area of the compound known as the "green heart".

Under changes to the Migration Act which passed the parliament earlier this month, any detainee who is convicted of an offence in immigration detention will automatically fail the "character test".

An immigration department spokesman warned that disruptive behaviour could affect visa processing outcomes and said the department found the conduct of those involved disappointing. "This kind of behaviour can effect the processing of a visa," said the spokesman.

However, according to Social Justice Network spokesman Jamal Daoud, about 200 detainees were involved in setting fire to rubbish bins and other materials at the centre late last night. He could not say what started the trouble. "There are three on the roof protesting," he said.

On Sunday night, a group of 11 asylum seekers climbed on the roof at the detention centre's main compound, which mainly holds single adult males. They climbed down on Monday.


Now Gillard is trying to stop sick Australians getting drugs they need

Politicians as judges of medical matters? It takes socialists to want to control everything

ELEVEN major drug companies have threatened to stop bringing new medicines to Australia and halt clinical trials over the Gillard government's decision to let cabinet choose which drugs get subsidised on the pharmaceutical benefits scheme.

The companies have been joined in their outcry by consumer groups, academics and doctors, who have condemned the process and warned that cabinet's new role in approving every new medicine subsidy risks a situation where drugs may be funded only if they will win votes.

More than 50 consumer, medical and pharmaceutical groups have raised a storm of protest at the new policy in submissions to a Senate inquiry. They warn that the lack of formal criteria to guide decisions will leave cabinet open to claims it is "unfair or biased".

For 62 years, governments have accepted the advice of the independent and expert Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee about which medicines should be subsidised. In February, the Gillard government deferred seven PBAC recommendations to save about $120 million.

Until February, cabinet only had a role in considering subsidies for medicines that cost more than $10m a year. However, in almost every case it approved subsidies for high-cost drugs recommended by the PBAC, which applies a rigorous cost-effectiveness test to drug approvals. Only two drugs -- Viagra and nicotine patches -- were knocked back by cabinet.

Now the government says cabinet will have a role every time in deciding which drugs should get a subsidy, after PBAC has completed its cost-effectiveness studies.

Eleven drug companies, including the world's largest, Pfizer, as well as GlaxoSmithKline and Astra Zeneca, say the uncertainty that results from cabinet's new drug subsidy process means clinical trials may stop, and it will be difficult to mount a business case for bringing new medicines to Australia.

The government's new subsidy approval policy stunned drug company chiefs as it came just months after legislation was passed to cement an agreement with pharmaceutical companies that would cut $1.9 billion from the price government pays for medicines over four years. This memorandum of understanding was meant to deliver business certainty to medicine companies for the next five years.

In the memorandum of understanding signed before last year's federal budget, the commonwealth said it undertook "not to implement new policy to generate price-related savings from the PBS during the period of the agreement".

The Department of Health and Ageing says PBAC recommendations have always required government approval and "this is not a new pricing policy". "It is taking a consistent approach to all listings with a financial impact by ensuring they are subject to the same processes already applied to those listings with a financial impact greater than $10m in any year," its submission says.

Drug companies have told the Senate committee that cabinet's decision to defer drug subsidies breaches the spirit of this agreement and is the reason drug companies may decide not to bring new medicines to Australia.

The government says there has not been any breach of the agreement and the companies are still actively seeking to list new drugs on the PBS, with 62 submissions at this month's meeting of the PBAC, a similar number to previous meetings.

Pharmaceutical company Janssen says it spent $12m on PBAC fees, training for mental health nurses and building up stocks of its schizophrenia drug after it was approved by PBAC, only to have it knocked back by cabinet. "The current lack of predictability in Australia's reimbursement system is likely to affect the priority given to introducing new medicines in Australia compared with other nations," Janssen has told the Senate committee.

GlaxoSmithKline says: "Increased uncertainty about the use of a medicine in Australia will make it increasingly difficult for us to secure local sites as part of global phase II and phase III clinical trials."

Drug company Novo Nordisk has warned that, unless the government gives an assurance the new subsidy policy will be reversed, "this will most certainly impair Novo Nordisk's ability to bring its significant pipeline of innovative anti-diabetic medicines to Australia".

iNova Pharmaceuticals says it wants to bring new medicines to treat asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and skin cancer to Australia. "However, arrangements to bring these therapies to Australian patients require certainty of the PBS listing timeframes which is currently proving difficult in light of the recent PBS deferrals," the company says.

Health Minister Nicola Roxon is on leave and was unavailable for comment last night but she has strongly defended cabinet's new role in approving drug subsidies. "While PBAC's enduring success is reflected in the fact successive governments have rarely had to differ from its recommendations, ultimately it is and always has been government's responsibility to decide whether to list a new drug," she told the Consumers Health Forum in April.

Medicines that could be held back from Australia include drugs being developed to treat cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and mental health and respiratory problems.

The drug companies argue that approving the drugs could create savings in the long run through reduced health costs.

The Department of Health and Ageing in its submission to the inquiry justifies cabinet's new role in medicine approval on the grounds of "current fiscal circumstances". It says that although subsidies for seven new medicines were delayed, 124 new medicines were listed on the drug subsidy scheme between January 1 and July 31 this year at a cost of $561m over five years. A further 33 medicines worth $287m will be listed later this year.

Some life-saving medicines can cost up to $40,000 a year, and government subsidies are essential to make them affordable to patients, cutting their cost to just $34.20 a month, or $5.40 for pensioners.


Sharia law at work in Australia

SHARIA law has become a shadow legal system within Australia, endorsing polygamous and underage marriages that are outlawed under the Marriage Act.

A system of "legal pluralism" based on sharia law "abounds" in Australia, according to new research by legal academics Ann Black and Kerrie Sadiq. They have found that Australian Muslims have long been complying with the shadow system of religious law as well as mainstream law.

But in family law, not all Muslims were registering their marriages and some were relying on religious ceremonies to validate unions that breached the Marriage Act. This included "polygynist marriages", in which a man takes multiple wives, and marriages where one party is under the lawful marriage age.

Their research, which will be published on Monday in the University of NSW Law Journal, says that the wider community has been "oblivious to the legal pluralism that abounds in this country".

The findings come soon after Ikebal Patel, president of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils, triggered a backlash inside the Islamic community when he called for Australia to compromise with Islam and embrace legal pluralism. Mr Patel later said he supported secular law and it had been a mistake to even mention legal pluralism.

The latest research has found that while polygamy is unlawful, mainstream law accommodates men who arrive in Australia with multiple wives and gives some legal standing to multiple partnerships that originate in Australia. "Valid Muslim polygynist marriages, lawfully entered into overseas, are recognised, with second and third wives and their children able to claim welfare and other benefits," they write.

Changes to the Family Law Act in 2008 meant that polygamous religious marriages entered into in Australia could also be recognised as de facto marriages. "It means a second wife can be validly married under Islamic law . . . and be a defacto wife under Australian law with the same legal entitlements as any other de facto relationship," they write.

The findings on polygamy were confirmed yesterday by Islamic community leader Kuranda Seyit. His personal view was "one wife is enough". But a small minority of Muslim men were taking second wives in ways that breached family law and their Islamic obligations.

"A second wife is permitted under Islam, but it is very difficult and there must be absolutely equal treatment of both wives," said Mr Seyit, who is director of the Forum on Australia's Islamic Relations.

He was aware of a very small number of "exploitative" arrangements in which men were taking much younger second wives and not complying with the sharia requirement of equal treatment. "It's definitely a minority, but unfortunately is does exist and I think it comes down to the standard of living that Australia affords many men who normally would not be able to afford such a situation," Mr Seyit said.

In their article, associate professor Sadiq and Ms Black note that research on Islamic marriage found in 2008 that 90 per cent of Muslims did not want to change Australian law.

They write that many Muslims support the protection of human rights and had come to Australia because of practices such as genital mutilation and honour killings in countries ruled by unreformed versions of sharia. However, they suggest there should be "tweaking" of family law to take account of sharia.

They suggest that the Family Law Act could be changed to ensure that when courts make parenting orders Muslim children are given similar rights to those enjoyed by indigenous children. This would require courts to consider they have a right to enjoy their own culture and the culture of people who share their culture.

Federal Attorney-General Robert McClelland said if there was ever any inconsistency between cultural values and the rule of law "then Australian law wins out". "There is only one law that's applicable in Australia - that's Australian law based on our common law tradition," he said. "Our constitutional founders included a provision against the state endorsing or prescribing any religion or religious practice."

He said the Family Law Act included specific provision for courts to consider, among other factors, an individual's lifestyle and background culture and traditions. "The government believes these provisions to be adequate," Mr McClelland said.


Women enraged over content of 'degrading' billboard advertisement

A billboard advertising power tools demeans women say its critics. The billboard at the intersection of Beaudesert and Riawena roads, Coopers Plains, is an advertisement for The Tool Shop and depicts three women holding power tools alongside the wording "Imagine all 3 at once? We can ..."

Minister for Women Karen Struthers said the wording was an explicit sexual reference that degrades women.

The Tool Shop's business development manager Esala Roqica defended the ad. "We didn't think the women in our billboard were dressed provocatively at all," he said. "With the words in the ad that's what we were going for, that we don't just have one range of tools, we have tools for everyone."

So far less than five complaints have been lodged with the Advertising Standards Bureau. A spokeswoman said the board would make a decision on the advertisement this week.



Anonymous said...

Those that wish to be offended will find any excuse to do so. Personally I am offended by their offendedness. Does that nullify their objections?


Paul said...

Queensland Health is just now pushing for massive cuts here in Cairns, including bed closures. Media either doesn't know or isn't saying.

Oh and another 79 mill supposedly been earmarked for payroll repair. Guess they're making the workers pay for their screw-up.