Monday, October 15, 2012

Qld.: Fat-cat union bosses to be forced into the open

UNION bosses could be compelled to reveal their pay and perks under Newman Government plans to expose how members' money is spent.

In a move set to spark a war with the labour movement, Attorney-General Jarrod Bleijie has confirmed the extraordinary legislation is being considered.

Under the proposal, union officials would have to declare an array of personal professional interests, such as credit card statements, similar to state MPs.

Individual unions could also have to publicly account for all spending, with particular emphasis on political party expenditure.

Mr Bleijie yesterday told The Courier-Mail that union members had a right to know how their fees were being spent.

"The Newman Government will be pushing for legislative change at a state level to stamp out corruption and ensure the law provides more safety nets, checks and balances," he said.

Mr Bleijie denied the move was political payback for union campaigns against Premier Campbell Newman during the state election and their crusade against cuts under which thousands of public servants were effectively sacked.

He insisted the decision to consider the legislation came after several recent scandals, including allegations of credit card misuse levelled at federal Labor MP Craig Thomson.

The Commonwealth's bid to increase union accountability through amendments to the Fair Work Act had not gone far enough, he said.

"The amendments don't reform financial disclosure and reporting guidelines for registered organisations, so they are pointless," Mr Bleijie said.

"The problems we are now trying to solve were highlighted in the Cooke inquiry over 20 years ago. It recommended aligning accountability standards for unions and corporations.

"However, successive state Labor governments refused to introduce these accountability measures recommended by Marshall Cooke, QC."

When the legislation would be introduced is yet unknown with the content now only the subject of informal Cabinet discussions.

But it is understood the Government may reconsider introducing the legislation if unions agree to adopt a voluntary code and have independent auditors pore over their books.


Free speech rights in flux

Everyone has their own little megaphone and when herded together the noise can be louder than the racket from the most strident demagogue or shock jock in earshot. Now the law is being asked to step in and draw some lines in the sand, or on the wall, or in the cloud, or somewhere.

In England the Department of Public Prosecution and a bunch of "stakeholders" - lawyers, journalists, police - are trying to come up with guidelines as to what constitutes "offensive" communications on open or social media networks.

In our own lively backyard, the NSW Attorney-General, Greg Smith, has commissioned a "working group" to examine the impact of social media on the sanctity of the criminal trial process and what can be done about it.

These are examples of authorities flailing about and trying to look as though they are doing something. Whatever emerges by way of worthy recommendations, it is unlikely that this genie is going to get back in its bottle.

In Canberra, our High Court is being asked to decide where the freedom to speak stops, particularly when it comes to the implied, but not enshrined, constitutional right of free speech on matters of government and politics.

For instance, does a person in breach of a council bylaw have a right to preach fire and brimstone god-bothering sermons on the street, to the annoyance of shopkeepers and shoppers?

Even more "out there", does the constitutional protection extend to someone, who in defiance of the criminal law, sent offensive and distressing messages through the mail to the relatives of Australian soldiers who have been killed in Afghanistan?

These are two actual cases heard this month by the same bench of the High Court (French CJ, along with justices Hayne, Heydon, Crennan, Kiefel and Bell). The decisions in both are reserved.

In the offensive letters case radical Muslim cleric Man Haron Monis was found guilty in April last year of using the postal service to cause offence and to menace and harass. In this instance it may have been difficult to glean the precise meaning of the letters but there was the suggestion that the dead soldiers were murderers. Amirah Droudis was charged with aiding and abetting.

Apart from the relatives of dead Australian Defence Force personnel, letters were also received by the relatives of an Austrade official who had been killed in the bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Jakarta on July 17, 2009.

There was lots of argument around what constitutes offensiveness. In its submission the Commonwealth said the mail could have provoked retaliation, including "civil commotion or riot".

David Bennett, QC, for Droudis, said "it is very easy to discard what one doesn't want to read". In that sense he was suggesting that not reading the letters was akin to turning off the radio if Alan Jones got on your wick.

But are these distressing letters on political matters constitutionally protected or, put another way, did this part of the criminal law dealing with offensive articles in the post exceed the legislative power of the Parliament because it infringed the implied right of free speech?

The trial judge thought the legislation did burden the freedom of communication about government or politics, but that it was nonetheless reasonably appropriate. The Court of Criminal Appeal basically agreed.

Now it's the High Court's turn, and it has the last say.

The Adelaide preachers Caleb and Samuel Corneloup have had a better run in the courts so far. An Adelaide City bylaw was used to stop the brothers Corneloup proselytising in a loud and aggressive manner in Rundle Mall. No one in Adelaide is allowed on the streets to "preach, canvass or harangue" without a permit.

The Corneloups won in the South Australian District Court, and the City of Adelaide lost an appeal in August last year, when the full Supreme Court found the bylaw was inconsistent with the implied constitutional freedom of political communication. The preaching, it appears, contained a good dose of political content. Again, the High Court will have the last word on whether the bylaw is an unreasonable burden on free speech.

What is refreshing is that these two cases, which are at the forefront of a free speech advance party, don't involve the new media. The "champions" are users of snail mail and street corners. How fitting it is that these overlooked communication devices are at the cutting edge of free speech jurisprudence.

Justice Michael Kirby has been relatively quiet since leaving the High Court but he was momentarily revived in the course of this bout of litigation. Here he is in an earlier free speech case. He's worth quoting at a little length because he rings a few bells for me:

"One might wish for more rationality, less superficiality, diminished invective and increased logic and persuasion in political discourse. But those of that view must find another homeland. From its earliest history, Australian politics has regularly included insult and emotion, calumny and invective, in its armoury of persuasion. They are part and parcel of the struggle of ideas.

"Anyone in doubt should listen for an hour or two to the broadcasts that bring debates of the Federal Parliament to the living rooms of the nation. This is the way present and potential elected representatives have long campaigned in Australia for the votes of constituents and the support of their policies. It is unlikely to change.

"By protecting from legislative burdens governmental and political communications in Australia, the constitution addresses the nation's representative government as it is practised. It does not protect only the whispered civilities of intellectual discourse."


Abusing the logic of human rights

Andrew Baker

Welfare reform is now a human rights abuse, according to the welfare lobby and the special interest groups they represent.

At the heart of the matter are the Gillard government’s reforms to Parenting Payment, which will move tens of thousands of parents of school-aged children onto the less generous Newstart Allowance, which also has tougher job search requirements. The reforms were passed by the Senate on Tuesday.

This move will save taxpayers more than $700 million over the next four years and will improve the incentives Parenting Payment recipients have to move from welfare to work.

However, these sensible and relatively modest reforms have been branded a potential human rights abuse worthy of the United Nations’ attention by the welfare lobby, led by the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) and the welfare-dependent parents affected by the reforms.

They argue that the government’s legislation violates Article 9 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which states that everyone has a right to social security, including social insurance.

Additionally, the welfare lobby alleges that the government’s reforms violate the ‘principle of non-retrogression,’ which means if you have a right, that right cannot be reduced or removed.

By combining Article 9 of the convention with the principle of non-retrogression, the welfare lobby has added 1 + 1 to get 3.

A right to social security plus the principle of non-retrogression supposedly means if you receive welfare payments (in this case Parenting Payment), you can’t have that payment removed or reduced, which is what would happen if Parenting Payment recipients are moved to Newstart Allowance. Hence, the welfare lobby concludes, the government’s reforms are an abuse of human rights.

Clearly there is some very dodgy logic being employed here.

First, the right to social security is not being violated – people are simply moving from one social security payment to another – in this case, from Parenting Payment to Newstart.

Second, the principle of non-retrogression is not being violated – the right to social security as outlined in Article 9 is not being reduced or removed at all. The reforms do not ban or prevent people from receiving welfare – the only change is to the welfare payment they receive.

Third, Article 9 is being interpreted incorrectly – if you accept that everyone has a right to social security, it does not follow that everyone, or even a particular group of people, has a right to a specific payment paid at a specific rate – in this case, Parenting Payment.

Individually, each of these points repudiates the welfare lobby’s claims that the government’s reforms are a human rights abuse. Together they smash the claim out of the park.

Parents of school-aged children who move from Parenting Payment to Newstart Allowance should not be branded as victims of human rights abuse. What they really are is just another special interest group wanting to take more money out of taxpayers' pockets.


Leftist haters want to abolish private schools

Since 40% of Australian teens to private, this hasn't got a snowflake's in real-world politics

Jennifer Buckingham

A few weeks ago I was a panellist at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas. The title of the session was ‘Abolish Private Schools.’ It became apparent within the first few minutes that a large number of people in attendance at the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall that day held that sentiment as their personal motto. As a defender of non-government education, I was not just the devil’s advocate, I was the devil incarnate.

Pasi Sahlberg, the English-speaking world’s oracle on Finnish education, gave the introductory address. He argued that Finland’s high average and high equity in scores in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is due to universal comprehensive public education and the status and calibre of school teachers. With Sahlberg as the protagonist, the premise of the session was this: Finland has very few private schools, and they are not publicly funded. So, if Australia had no private schools, couldn’t we too achieve these things?

The first question posed to the panel was what would Australia’s education system be like without private schools and school choice? My response was that it would be pretty boring. I like the variety in Australia’s schools, and highly value the freedom parents have to be able to choose their child’s school. It’s fair to say I wasn’t a crowd-pleaser.

Most of Australia’s students in both public and non-governments schools do well by international standards. What we have, unfortunately, is a group of students whose performance is well below that of their peers. These students are typically from low socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds and attend schools with similarly disadvantaged students. These struggling students need and deserve better, but abolishing private schools would do nothing to further this cause.

The different levels of socioeconomic inequity in Australian and Finnish schools reflect the different socioeconomic inequities in our societies. If all non-government schools became public schools overnight, there would be very little transfer of high-SES students into low SES schools. And, here’s the clincher – the public school system would become even more cash strapped. Instead of subsidising students to attend non-government schools at an average of $6,500 per student, each of those students would be entitled to the full public education rate – more than $11,000 per student at last count. Voluntary private investment in education would be replaced with scarce public money.

If you were trying to increase the impost on taxpayers with absolutely no educational benefit, it’s hard to think of a better way than this. A dangerous idea, indeed.

At least I can cross ‘be heckled at the Sydney Opera House’ off my to-do list.


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