Sunday, December 23, 2012

A Fatwa on Christmas

AN IMAM at Australia's biggest mosque has issued a fatwa against Christmas, warning followers it is a "sin" to even wish people a Merry Christmas.

The ruling, which followed a similar lecture during Friday prayers at Lakemba Mosque, was posted on its Facebook site on Saturday, according to media reports.

It appears the post is no longer on the page.

The head imam at Lakemba, Sheikh Yahya Safi, told the congregation during prayers they should not have anything to do with Christmas.

The fatwa reportedly warns: "Disbelievers are trying to draw Muslims away from the straight path."

It says Christmas Day and associated celebrations are among the "falsehoods" for a Muslim to avoid.

"Therefore a Muslim is neither allowed to celebrate the Christmas Day nor is he allowed to congratulate them," it says.

The fatwa has been condemned by other Muslim leaders. The Grand Mufti of Australia,  Ibrahim Abu Mohammad, was quoted by Fairfax media as saying the foundations of Islam were peace, co-operation, respect and holding others in esteem.

"Anyone who says otherwise is speaking irresponsibly," it quoted him as saying.


Legal aid cuts a blow for anti-gas groups

FARMERS and community groups will have to seek private funding for public interest court cases against coalminers and gas drillers, after a crackdown on Legal Aid funding by the NSW government.

The Attorney-General, Greg Smith, announced changes this week to stop the funding being used on behalf of "activists" and "lobbyists" who could impede minerals industries.

But Mr Smith refused to say what he meant by "lobbyist" and "activist", or say what means or merit tests would be applied.

Asked by Fairfax Media whether a farmer could still seek help over land access during a coal seam gas dispute, he declined to comment.

The new guidelines say any Legal Aid funding must not be used for "providing legal advice to activists and lobby groups".

The ruling is likely to mean that many groups, including the Environmental Defender's Office of NSW, can no longer perform their primary jobs.

"Most of our work is for rural community groups, most of those groups would be incorporated in some way, and most of them would have a constitution with a clause about protecting the environment where they live," said its executive director, Jeff Smith.

"It's not difficult to see them being caught. But it's difficult to know, because a lot of the answers will depend on details of how the government defines 'lobby groups'."

The office has had its resources cut, with reduced funding available only until March. It had received about $1.2 million a year from the Law Society's Public Purpose Fund, which is based on interest from unclaimed solicitors' fees. The office's staff of 25 would have to be cut to three people unless previous funding from the public purpose fund was restored, Mr Smith said.

Members of the public and the legal community, including 59 environmental law academics, have asked the state government to maintain funding for the office.

The office has achieved wins on behalf of community groups, including reversing the Catherine Hill Bay housing development bordering Lake Macquarie, in which a Labor Party donor had been granted approval to build on environmentally sensitive land. Others have been stopping pollution in the Sydney drinking water catchment and improving remediation of the Barangaroo development site.

The new rules will affect 36 community legal centres across the state. They received more than $18 million last year, including $5.26 million from the Public Purpose Fund.

The rule changes specify that funding should primarily be used to give legal advice to socially and economically disadvantaged people, and that these people should be subject to a means and merit test.

The Attorney-General's position on environmental campaigning has previously been endorsed by the Premier, Barry O'Farrell. The Energy Minister, Chris Hartcher, has accused the Environmental Defender's Office of supporting "the left agenda to destroy the economy".

Asked if the Attorney-General's office had produced or vetted the guidelines, or whether they had been developed by lawyers within the department, a spokeswoman for Greg Smith did not comment.

"The funding principles will be applied by the trustees of the Public Purpose Fund and Legal Aid NSW when making decisions about the future allocation of moneys from a pool of funds which is diminishing as interest rates continue to fall," the spokeswoman said.


Leftist bias at the ABC

THE response by the managing director of the Australian Broadcasting Corp, Mark Scott, to Janet Albrechtsen's piece on ABC bias, almost defies belief. It is not the first time he has argued this case, even as he presented figures to a senate inquiry on the biased make-up of the panellists on Insiders.

Somehow, Scott trusts his "outstanding" commentators, by claiming that they are "carrying no ideological badge and pushing no line". Well that settles it, doesn't it?

There has been a very long tradition of accusations of bias in our national broadcaster. In 1981, the Dix report, a committee of review of the ABC, strongly recommended that current affairs programs would be "most arresting, informative and effective, and attract wider audience patronage, if more efforts were made to open the programs to a wider range of viewpoints".

Following the Dix report, the Institute of Public Affairs published a first attempt at media analysis. It looked "at the range of ideas being discussed in selected ABC programs over a period of time to see whether they appear to favour any particular political philosophy".

To his credit, author Ken Baker understood the "range of issues" should be related to "the views of the community". Thirty years on, the ABC is still resisting accusations it is completely out of touch with the community.

That the managing director doesn't see this defies well established perceptions from journalists themselves. In groundbreaking research in 1995 and 1998, John Henningham, a professor at Queensland University published a couple of papers on journalists' perceptions of bias and the ideological differences between them and their public.

What is striking about the research is that the journalists clearly rated the ABC as pro-Labor, indeed as the most pro-Labor of the major media outlets. In this light, indignant protests that the ABC is balanced become plain silly.

Similarly, to deny that there is a large gap between ABC presenters and their audience is simply unsustainable after Henningham surveyed 173 journalists and 262 members of the public in metropolitan Australia. He found an enormous difference between these two groups, with journalists consistently having a much more "progressive" views than the general public. The denial in the ABC has reached a point it does even bother to attempt balance. Albrechtsen has clearly outlined the major offenders. With the polls suggesting a Gillard wipeout, there is a feeling of "end of days" denial in the ABC and they, like Gillard, are going for broke.

A timely book by Californian academic Tim Groseclose, Left Turn: How Liberal Media Bias Distorts the American Mind is at pains to point out that political bias "does not mean not being truthful, or reporting facts honestly or even objectively". If there is one lesson to be learned and many of us in Australia have been saying it for years it is about the selectivity of issues, the bias that is formed by the things that are not reported, and in interviews, by the people who are not interviewed.

This is an exquisitely refined technique on the ABC. Presenters tend to interview only those experts who agree with their own opinions, thus transforming news from factual content into a point of view without appearing to express the view of the presenter. On a panel on Insiders or Q&A, one simply gets the false impression that there is a consensus.

Given this reality, Groseclose's most innovative and remarkable analysis comes from asking the question: what would the public really think if we could magically get rid of the biased media?

Left Turn's rigorous, objective methodology was able to measure the filtering that distorts the way we see the world and shows that it does indeed change the way we think. In particular, Groseclose has scrupulously used measures based on criteria selected by the Left itself as a hedge against potential criticism. His research indicates the views we hear expressed by people are not their natural views, but are distorted views of what they really think. Worse, he warns, "media bias feeds on itself".

As a result, in the US the population would, without the omnipresent media bias, score fully 20 percentage points further to the Right. If correct, this is very troubling and begs the intriguing question about the effects of the slant bias in Australia.

It also would explain why so many educated, generally mildly apolitical, well thinking middle class people with a regular diet of the ABC and Fairfax, simply are not aware that, for instance, the world has stopped warming for the past 16 years, that hurricanes and extreme weather events have declined and are not related to global warming, that Doha was a dismal failure, that the NBN has never had a cost benefit analysis, that Green jobs cost money ... and jobs, that growing the economic pie is not the same as redistributing tax revenue Bravo Tony Jones or that the Great Barrier Reef is not being destroyed.

As I explained 10 years ago on a panel at an ABC national staff conference in Melbourne; there is nothing more boring than a one-sided football match. Why doesn't the ABC be brave and challenge itself with controversial, mainstream ideas? It would be "most arresting, informative and effective", as the Dix report concluded more than 30 years ago.


Increasing taxes not the answer: try smart spending

"One of the problems with the idea that "the rich" should pay more tax is that, in Australia, they already pay the vast bulk of income tax revenue"

ONE of the recurring themes of a number of speeches made by Treasury Secretary Martin Parkinson is the potentially persistent gap that is emerging in Australia between expectations of government spending and the scope for government to raise revenue.

In his words, "slowing economic growth, rising expectations of government and a constrained revenue base are likely to force an explicit debate about the size and scope of government".

So far, so good. Sadly, however, most of recent public discussion of this topic is based on the assumption that, one way or another, governments in Australia must raise more tax as a proportion of GDP. What needs to be figured out, so the argument goes, is how best to increase tax revenue.

Should it be done by eliminating the exemptions that apply to the GST? Should it be done by raising the rate at which the GST is levied? Should it be done by taxing "the rich" even more? Should it be done by cutting tax concessions, particularly in the superannuation area?

Let me be upfront on this topic. I do not share the assumption that the only way forward is to increase the tax burden. In fact, I think we should be doing everything we can to reduce tax revenue as a proportion of GDP. What is needed is a root-and-branch analysis of the expenditure side of the budget, to cut out wasteful spending and useless programs. Only in this way can there be reduced taxation in association with sustainable fiscal outcomes.

But let us start our story in the early 1960s. Then the share of all government spending of GDP in Australia was just over 20 per cent. It is now around 35 per cent. This is a very substantial increase in the size of government over a relatively short time frame.

In international terms, however, Australia looks like a relatively low taxing-low spending country. We are above the US, but similar to Japan and Switzerland. There are a number of countries that extract much higher proportions of their national outputs in taxation.

Examples of high taxing-high spending countries include: Denmark, Sweden, Belgium, Norway and France.

But as Nigel Ray, one of the executive directors of the Treasury, points out, these comparisons can be misleading. "Data on tax revenue or spending can never fully capture the impact government will have on an economy. Most notably, this measure will not account for activity of state-owned enterprises; it hides the use of tax concessions; and it does not capture the impact of government regulations (including mandated superannuation contributions)".

For most of the 2000s, Australian government receipts as a proportion of GDP ranged between 25.1 and 25.9 per cent. Associated with the GFC, this proportion fell to 23.4 per cent in 2007-08 and has not recovered to the levels experienced in the first part of the 2000s. On the Treasury's reckoning, even by 2015-16, the ratio of receipts to GDP will not have returned to 25 per cent.

Now some commentators have seized on these numbers to make the case for higher taxes. But government receipts are the result of both explicit government decisions and the underlying level and nature of economic activity.

What has been happening over the past several years has been the consequence largely of the absence of capital gains to tax; the large deductions associated with the mining investment boom; sluggish company tax receipts more generally; and the small amount of fiscal drag in the current income tax scales. None of these factors is related to any recent government decisions.

The same commentators who recommend higher taxes will sometimes point to survey data which indicate that reasonable proportions of the Australian population seem to be happy with the idea of higher taxes.

Digging a little deeper, however, these survey results are distorted by the fact that many respondents are actually supporting other people, in particular "the rich", paying more tax, rather than being actually willing to pay more tax themselves. (Many do not pay tax in net terms, in any case.)

One of the problems with the idea that "the rich" should pay more tax is that, in Australia, they already pay the vast bulk of income tax revenue. According to the latest figures, the top quarter of income earners paid more than two-thirds of the total revenue from income tax. By contrast, the bottom 25 per cent paid less than 3 per cent of the total.

We are also seeing overseas experiments of imposing higher taxes on "the rich" go horribly wrong. In the UK, for instance, the introduction of a new 50p top tax rate for those earning more than £1 million a year saw the number of people in this tax bracket fall by over 60 per cent. Rather than raising more revenue, it is estimated that £7 billion was lost in tax revenue.

A similar trend is apparent in France, where the Hollande government has imposed an income tax surcharge on very high income earners. Significant numbers of "the rich" have sought alternative tax domiciles.

Where the argument about taxation in Australia becomes very confused is the widely acknowledged inefficiency of our present mix of taxes; in particular, some of the taxes levied by state governments, but the MRRT could be thrown in, for good measure. But it is important to bear in mind that reforming the tax base is most likely to occur when there is scope to compensate the losers of the changed tax mix.

Trying both to make taxes more efficient and, at the same time, increase the overall burden of taxation is a recipe for failure.

The story of the introduction of the GST was the removal of a number of extremely inefficient taxes and compensation to individuals and families through changes to the income tax scales and transfer payments. The overall tax burden was largely unchanged.

The theory is straightforward: it is better to impose taxes that have a ratio of output loss to revenue raised of 10 per cent, say, than 40 per cent.

In other words, eliminate the taxes with the highest deadweight losses. In practice, however, it can be very complicated to change the tax mix, particularly given the overlay of federal-state financial relations.

The bottom line is that there is a case for making taxes more efficient, but this should not be confused with the case for increasing taxes. Luckily, the scope for cutting government spending is very substantial and will set up the circumstances in which the overall burden of taxation can be reduced.

Think: Family Tax Benefit B; excessive childcare subsidies; excessive university tuition subsidies; schoolkids bonus; baby bonus; first-home buyers grant; industry assistance, including to the automotive industry and the clean energy fund; multiple regional grants - the list goes on and on.

Of course, some tax revenue is needed to fund the core functions of government. And we are best served if we can raise taxes which have the lowest impact on work effort and investment.

But the biggest breakthrough is likely to come by confining government spending to a small number of functions where private provision will be absent or inadequate and to ensuring that spending always generates benefits greater than the costs.


Miss Universe 2012 at Las Vegas

She was among the finalists but Miss Australia (Renae Ayris) did not get a placing.  I don't think I am biased in sayibg she looks by far the best to me.  And who doesn't prefer blondes, anyway?


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