Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Free speech fight at Melbourne university: Fired lecturer beats the bureaucracy

The champagne was flowing freely in local art circles this morning after sacked RMIT lecturer Steve Cox -- feted internationally for his searing portraits of murderous social decline — chalked up a free speech triumph against his former employer in the Magistrates’ Court.

Cox’s tussles with School of Art head Elizabeth Grierson began when he posted images and comments critical of Grierson and the administration on the popular “Save Art from RMIT” Facebook page, which urges members to “vent your thoughts and frustrations”.

The page says the fine art course is “under threat” and that “teaching hours, teachers, facilities & courses are being cut”, leading to its global blackballing.

In early February, following his sacking for disciplinary reasons, Cox posted a photo-shopped image of Grierson with the title “Her Legacy Shall Be Ashes” and another caricature called “Grierson Out”.

The rancour increased after Cox took the fight to his personal Facebook page, which unlike most profiles is set to public and viewable by anyone. Last month, University lawyers issued an interim intervention order preventing him from posting any references to Grierson anywhere on Facebook and from physically approaching the RMIT building in Melbourne’s CBD.

But in yesterday’s out-of-court settlement, highlighting the vexed issues of modern day cyberstalking, the university was forced into an humiliating backdown, agreeing not to visit Cox’s personal Facebook page for the next 20 years. For his part, Cox will remove three Facebook entries and agree not to post anything “with malice” in the future. The clear legal implication is that if someone doesn’t want to be offended online they should avert their gaze.

Cox: “I’m now free to say anything about RMIT that I want. She’s not allowed to go to my Facebook page for 20 years which is great.”

Cox was well prepared for yesterday’s hearing, tapping crack silk Tim North and calling on former Queensland Art Gallery director and current Australian Commissioner for the Venice Biennale Doug Hall for expert testimony. When the university got wind of the dual offensive, they quickly backed down.


Julia's fibre network is already a white elephant

Remember those rabid Beta-tape aficionados of the late 70s and early 80s? You know, the ones who swore they had found the one true technology and held firm to their allegiance as the video library shelves became chock-a-block full of VHS tapes and the beta tapes were relegated to a dark, dingy corner out the back before disappearing altogether.

“Beta’s better!” they would cry in frustration. And technically, it could be argued they were right. Problem was, consumers voted VHS with their wallets. And Beta, despite its small band of loyalists, died as a mainstream technology.

Just 30 years later even VHS has gone the way of the dodo and its successor, DVDs, are rapidly on the way to obsolescence, with hard drive and flash disk technology offering the compact convenience consumers want.

This Government kind of reminds me of the Beta ideologues.

Their commitment to spending $36 billion of your money over the next decade to roll out fibre-to-the-premises technology with the National Broadband Network flies in the face of logic.

Labor’s claim that the NBN will “future proof” Australia seems na├»ve in the extreme. Does Senator Conroy really believe that this cumbersome cabling to homes will be the technology that consumers want in 20, 30 or 50 years? It’s unlikely to be what consumers want in a couple of years – much less the 10 it is expected to take to roll it out.

It doesn’t even seem to be what consumers want now. The two NBN test sites in Australia have been connected to some 6,000 premises, but currently the NBN has only 41 active customers. Seriously. A 0.68 per cent take-up rate - hardly a case-study in consumer demand.

But, just like those Beta ideologues, Labor is sticking to its guns. But, honestly, what good is a product – whatever its merits – if no-one is buying?

With perhaps this in mind, Labor is paying Telstra an extra $12 billion or so to rip up all their copper network so folks will have no alternative but the NBN. Even the Beta extremists didn’t advocate the destruction of the all Super 8 films!

Like Labor’s other big policy dud – the carbon tax – it all seems a little pointless. And expensive. And with negligible benefits.

I don’t claim to be an expert. But American Steve Perlman is. He developed Apple’s Quick-time media player software (something those original Beta-heads would have been impressed by) and he’s now announced a new wireless technology – DIDO – that has the potential for internet download speeds to be 1,000 times what they are currently while not suffering the current performance degradation caused by the number of wireless users.

Importantly, it’s wireless technology – the sort that allows people to access the internet through their smartphones or laptops wherever they are. The sort consumers want.

True, DIDO is not available right now. But neither is the NBN – except to those test areas where people just aren’t joining up.

Does anyone really believe, given the massive leaps in internet technology we’ve seen in recent years, that this new improved wireless will not eventuate? In fact, it will probably be sooner rather than later.

Question is, how many billions of dollars of taxpayers money will be wasted digging up streets and laying new cables before this Government realises that the NBN is an expensive waste and consumers are voting with their wallets for more convenient, appropriate and affordable technology?


Treasury's carbon tax modelling based on improbable assumptions

TREASURY'S modelling of the carbon tax-emission trading scheme proposed by the government is based on the assumption that the world is taking collective action sufficient to stabilise greenhouse gas concentration levels at about either 550 parts per million or 450ppm by about 2100 in order to meet the Copenhagen objective of limiting global warming to below 2C above preindustrial levels.

This assumption is based on the fact that, since last year's UN climate conference in Cancun, 89 countries have pledged action, covering 80 per cent of global emissions and more than 90 per cent of the global economy. But what do these pledges actually promise in terms of limiting global warming? Are they enough? How much more will be required?

Treasury does not reveal the answer in its report, but an answer can be found in the work of the American public interest charity, Climate Interactive (

It runs simulations (like Treasury's simulations) of the likely impact on greenhouse gas concentrations (and global temperatures) in 2100 if all the global pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions were put into effect. Confirmed proposals up to the present (excepting the new Australian proposal to move our 2050 target to an 80 per cent cut in emissions) produce an atmospheric concentration measured in CO2 equivalents (CO2e) of 1105ppm and a resulting increase in temperature above pre-industrial levels of 4.1C. Even when potential proposals are included, CO2e in 2100 reaches 670ppm and an increase in temperature of 2.7C.

Potential proposals include legislation currently under consideration, campaign promises of newly elected governments, conditional proposals, and statements from think tanks with close ties to governments.

As things stand, the world is not going to meet the targets set by Treasury in its modelling, even if all known and potential proposals to cut greenhouse gas emissions were carried out. So Treasury is factoring into its expectations for global emissions reductions actions that are not even potentially likely at the present time.

But let us suppose Treasury's allocation of emissions reductions among countries were to be put in place. Permits to emit tonnes of CO2e would be issued to countries (by some authority or other) on the basis of their projected baseline emissions less their assigned emission reductions targets. In Treasury's model (but not necessarily the eventual, globally agreed, model), the volume of permits issued is a uniform percentage of each country's baseline emissions. These permits can be traded, including internationally. Countries that can reduce emissions by more than their assigned target will sell the excess to countries that cannot meet their targets from their assigned volume of permits.

Australia is assumed by Treasury to be a net buyer of permits. Far from meeting our emission reduction targets (5 per cent less than 2000 in 2020 and 80 per cent less than 2000 in 2050) off our own bat, Australia meets its targets mainly by buying reductions in emissions from other countries. In Treasury's core policy scenario, our emissions rise from 556 tonnes of CO2e in 2000 to 621 tonnes in 2020 and fall to only 545 tonnes in 2050. Hence, our 80 per cent cut in emissions in 2050 is met by a 2 per cent cut in our own emissions together with a 78 per cent cut bought from the rest of the world (meaning that other countries must be able to cut their emissions by more than their target reductions). But how are other countries able to do this if Australia cannot? And what happens to Australia's GDP if Australia can only buy permits internationally at a high price?

Treasury estimates the international price of a permit to emit a tonne of CO2e in 2050 will be $131. This seems to be a remarkably low price, resting on a faith that technological changes and replacement of capital stock can occur cheaply and at high speed across the planet. If this is not so, the carbon price could reach very high levels and the growth rate of the world's (and Australia's) GDP would fall significantly. So how confident can we be that Treasury has got the 2050 carbon price even approximately right? Not very.


Rational argument is the only response to Norway

An editorial in "The Australian"

THERE is a diabolical symmetry between the slaughter of 76 people in Norway last week and the terrorism of Islamist extremists.

Anders Behring Breivik and terrorists such as 9/11 bomber Mohamed Atta choose violence to express their rage against globalisation and employ a messianic justification for their actions. Their atrocities serve no rational political purpose and it would be useless, not to say unconscionable, for civilised people to offer appeasement.

While it is reasonable to draw a moral equivalence between the acts committed, it is entirely unreasonable to presume a moral equivalence in our response to the murderous rampage in Oslo and Utoya Island and 9/11. The organised nature of Islamist terrorism, the scale of the atrocities, the preparedness of rogue nation-states to bankroll their operations and their ability to exploit the anti-modern fears of hundreds of millions of people puts the Islamists in an entirely different league from the lone operator in Norway.

Yet the horror of the killings last week has been employed by some commentators to slander their cultural and political opponents and delegitimise views that do not conform to their own narrow code. They suggest that because Breivik was troubled by modernity, everyone who expresses concerns about radical change in Western society in recent decades is implicated in his crimes. They seek to appropriate the event to further unrelated, progressive political causes here. Some have used the attack to smear anyone on the Right of politics and call for opponents of the government and the Greens to back off.

It is not the first time. Earlier this year, there was a similar effort to blur and slur when a madman shot a US Democrat congresswoman and killed six people in Arizona. Commentators blamed the attack on strident right-wing political rhetoric but were silenced when it was revealed the gunman's politics, such as they were, came from the Left, and that his grievances were beyond reason. In Breivik, these political opportunists have found their right-wing perpetrator.

The instinct to close down debate by conflating evil with a desire to question is a worrying phenomenon, and not restricted to devastating events such as this one. We have seen in this country in recent months the development of a febrile atmosphere in which people at extremes of the ideological spectrum feel empowered to attack their opponents or even their questioners, with scant regard for civility or rational argument. It is difficult to pursue genuine public debate about important social, political and cultural issues without being accused of running an agenda. Yet rational debate has never been more necessary at a time where virtually everyone has access to free, unfiltered publication of their views.

Each day brings new cases of illiberalism. On Monday, the Greens deputy leader, Christine Milne, was applauded on national television for citing The Australian's opinion pages as reason to exercise parliamentary oversight on media bias. On Thursday, former Labor leader Mark Latham went into print to urge the government to "strike hard" against "the evils of Murdoch journalism" while the activist organisation GetUp! announced it would try to force the hand of the broadcasting regulator, the Australian Communications and Media Authority, to censure a prominent radio host for stating his view on climate science. For the record, we believe the radio host in question, Alan Jones, was wrong on this occasion and his rhetoric sometimes crosses the boundary between strident and offensive. But we respect his right to say what he thinks and note that he gives voice to many Australians excluded from the debate by many other media outlets.

The disintegration of our national conversation into a blogging, tweeting, cacophony is an unfortunate development in a civil democracy. Yet it is pouring fuel upon the fire to respond to the illiberalism of one's cultural opponents with equal intolerance. An ad-hominem tweet, or inflammatory invective on talkback radio, will never win the argument, but that is not what their authors intend. It takes effort to assemble a rational, logically sound argument; it is easier to intimidate and shame your opponent into silence and thereby, in the manner of Steven Bradbury, triumph by being the last man standing.

Many fair-minded Australians hold legitimate concerns about the effects of globalisation and are troubled that the nation and the patriotic values they hold dear are threatened by an influx of people from different cultures. They are concerned, as we are, that government policy that celebrates difference and ignores the values that bind us together is bad for the nation. They are concerned that we are surrendering the values implicit in our succinct but effective de facto bill of rights: the fair go. To hold these opinions may be unfashionable in some circles, but they are not a crime, and the correct response is to reason, not to censor.

This newspaper has always supported Australia's open-migration policies. We believe the mix of people from different ethnic backgrounds is a national strength but that does not blind us to the complexities of change and the need for a common set of public behaviours and values. We believe, too, that most Australians are not racist, regardless of their views on immigration or asylum-seekers. It is wrong to assume that those who object to boatpeople are doing so on grounds of race. Their argument is with asylum-seekers jumping the queue and with people-smugglers. Maintaining the order of the system underpins community support for immigration.

In the shock of Islamist-inspired terrorist acts, the faith of Islam has been served a grievous injustice. Terrorists who claimed to act in the name of Allah have damaged the reputation of a noble religion. But that does not justify a similar denigration of Christianity in this case. News reports, including in this newspaper, have claimed Breivik is a fundamentalist Christian. Whatever his churchgoing habits, it is wrong to smear Christians generally with this appalling crime. It is people, not religion, who are to blame for evil acts.

If any encouragement can be drawn from this tragic, dispiriting week, it is in the work of people such as former British prime minister Tony Blair who are prepared to stand against the tide of rampant secularism to declare that interfaith dialogue may indeed be the answer to fractured globalisation.


No comments: