Friday, February 22, 2013

Senate inquiry rejects 'offends and insults' law

A Senate inquiry has rejected the Federal Government's plans to prohibit conduct that offends or insults, saying the move could limit freedom of expression.

The inquiry has been considering a draft bill that wraps together five existing human rights and anti-discrimination laws.

The aim of the bill is to provide a clearer definition of what behaviour is considered unacceptable and how people can make complaints.

The draft includes a clause stating that unfavourable treatment of another person includes conduct that offends, insults or intimidates.

The Coalition and legal groups have raised concerns that would curtail freedom of speech.

Media organisations including the ABC, Fairfax and News Limited also argued against the clause, saying many media organisations publish or broadcast material that some members of the public will find offensive at times, ranging from satirical programming to political commentary.

Last month, former attorney-general Nicola Roxon acknowledged the concern and made the clause optional rather than mandatory.

But the Senate inquiry, which received more than 3,000 submissions, has recommended the clause be removed altogether.

The inquiry says the clause may have unintended consequences, including making it illegal to offend someone.

The Federal Government is not making any promises about agreeing to any of the recommendations.

Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus says there is a lot in the report for the Government to consider.

"Public views, which are going to help the Government identify whether its intention of consolidating these important laws," he said.

"But it's an extensive report. It will require close consideration and a full response will be made shortly."

But shadow attorney-general George Brandis says the draft legislation is so flawed it cannot be fixed.

"It creates a scheme in which Government would be much more intrusive, much more invasive, effectively establish itself as an arbiter for community standards in a way we don't think is the role of the state at all," he said.


Labor has lost the plot, and the narrative

Waleed Aly says the ALP stands for nothing, which is pretty right.  A party that stood up for the worker would reject all the Greenie restrictions that keep the workers poor -- but we see no sign of that.  The trouble is that the ALP is now more the teachers' party than the workers' party

If you're inclined to take a long-term view of politics, the hand-wringing on whether Julia Gillard should stay or go is really just so much white noise.

Labor is in crisis, but not principally for the reasons that occupy the commentariat.

It's not about a bitterly divided caucus, or political miscalculations such as the ham-fisted Nova Peris saga. It's not even simply about policy missteps such as the creation of an impotent mining tax.

Labor's problems are not nearly so managerial and technocratic. They are much, much bigger than that.

Labor's problem is ideological. It doesn't really mean anything any more, and probably hasn't since Paul Keating lost power in 1996. Sure, Labor has had its moments - most notably in its campaign against WorkChoices, which jolted its ideological memory and gave it a momentary reason to exist.

But this was no ideological revival. It was reactive: a political opportunity well taken rather than a world view reborn.

Only John Howard's pro-business, anti-union zeal, unencumbered by any resistance in the Senate, made this possible. After WorkChoices, much as before it, what then?

This isn't an optional, esoteric extra. Governments ultimately thrive on narrative. Voters are not merely electing a suite of set policies. They are electing a party that will respond to future, unforeseen policy questions. They therefore need to know what you're about. That's what a clear consistent story tells them.

A party without a narrative is reduced to seeking your support as a lesser evil. Hence Labor's focus on Tony Abbott.

Every successful government can be summarised in a phrase or two. Bob Hawke: a new, deregulated, globalised economy. Keating inherited that story, then added Asia, a growing economic power in our backyard we should embrace by shedding our British skin. Howard was about nationalism, security and capital's triumph over labour. Everything - asylum seeker policy, counterterrorism, foreign affairs, even unsolicited social commentary about minority groups - was tailored to fit the story.

Exactly what story has Labor told us since 2007? It began with something about "Australian working families", but that too was a relic of the WorkChoices campaign. After that, it has been mostly a blancmange of conflicting messages. Perhaps it started when Kevin Rudd wanted to be "tough but humane" on asylum seekers. It took Gillard only a matter of days as Prime Minister to continue the incoherence, declaring both that the number of boat people arriving in Australia was much smaller than many imagined, before swiftly going on to reassure those worried about invading hordes that their concerns were legitimate, and that they're "certainly [not] racist". We learn nothing from this about how Labor sees asylum seekers. We learn only that it's trying to please everyone.

The problem persists even in Labor-friendly policy areas. Take education, where the Rudd government announced a bold new focus on literacy and numeracy, much as Howard might have. More recently, it commissioned the Gonski review, but tied its hands on the question of private school funding so the panel couldn't even consider cutting it. Then it pledged a response it is yet to detail or fund.

Indeed, its only real response to date has been a bill it hailed as the most important of last year, but which had nothing in it at all. Explicitly. It has a section specifically saying the bill creates no rights or obligations on anyone - especially the government. To paraphrase, "section 10: this legislation does not exist".

Even Labor's most significant reform, the carbon tax, merely symbolises the party's ideological malaise. The government's heftiest achievement isn't even its own policy. Indeed, it was so infamously promised not to be its policy.

Remember the citizens' assembly? That was Gillard's pledge before the last election: a random gathering of ordinary people who would somehow reach a consensus on pricing carbon. That's a process, not a policy. It's the kind of thing you do when you want to announce something but you're not prepared to commit to a compelling vision of your own.

As the opposition hammers it on Labor's broken pledge to deliver a surplus this financial year, the government seems to have found some coherence. Confronted with falling corporate profit (and therefore falling tax revenue), it had a choice: either keep finding cuts that would make lots of people unemployed and deflate the economy, or prioritise jobs and growth. It's a nice line. It sounds like a Labor line. But it follows years of saying the opposite; of elevating the surplus to some inviolable standard of good economic management; of saying the main game was giving the Reserve Bank "room to cut interest rates". And this in the face of the ever-lengthening queue of economists advising to the contrary.

In short, Labor had bought wholly into the Coalition's narrative for no discernible reason. It conceded the philosophical debate, then lost the political fight. So now, when it has finally found a Labor story to tell, it sounds convenient and insincere. Labor has become a liberal party, so it isn't even convincing when it sounds like itself.

That's not about incompetent leadership; it is the flipside of the Hawke/Keating legacy. Once Labor embraced a deregulated, liberal economy, the political landscape was forever changed, leaving a diabolical question for subsequent Labor leaders: what exactly is the point of Labor politics? The compromise has been to talk about Labor's "reforming tradition", but reform is an act, not an ideology. WorkChoices was a reform, too.

Labor has been chasing its base ever since. Often it watched helplessly as workers became small business owners and turned into Howard's socially conservative battlers. Labor cannot offer them industrial protection, and desperately doesn't want to offend their cultural sensibilities, which is why it says things like "tough but humane".

The result is that Labor cannot even compete on social and cultural politics. Hence the flight to the Greens, the party Gillard so venomously dismissed this week as a "party of protest". To which the most devastating reply is surely: "Fine. But what are you?"


Woolies chief questions regulation call

Woolworths has questioned calls for more supermarket regulation as the competition watchdog signals a renewed focus on market power.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has flagged it will heavily scrutinise the highly concentrated supermarket and fuel sectors amid claims the retailers have mis-used their market power by squeezing suppliers.

But Woolworths chief executive Grant O'Brien says more regulation isn't the answer and denies Woolworths is intimidating its suppliers, althoug he's admitted an anonymous complaints hotline for suppliers has uncovered a few cases of wrongdoing.

"When there are calls for regulating choice in a supermarket, I really start to wonder where the Australian consumers’ interests are being prioritised,’’ he told the Queensland University of Technology forum late yesterday.

Mr O’Brien also insisted that Woolworths was not intimidating its suppliers.

"We have a very strict code in our business and all of our buyers, those people in contact with suppliers, have to go through that process before they’re allowed to be a buyer,’’ he said. "We have a zero tolerance for anything that goes outside those codes.’’

But Mr O’Brien admitted an anonymous hotline for suppliers to lodge complaints had uncovered a few cases of wrongdoing.

"Very few because we get very few calls,’’ he said.

Mr Sims said that since the last ACCC inquiry in 2008, global groceries giants had entered the Australian market and increased price competition.

"Aldi are are two to three times the size of Woolworths, Costco have come - they’re bigger," he said.

While Woolworths has defended its internal code, it continues to work with its main rival Coles, the Australian Food and Grocery Council and the National Farmers’ Federation on an industry wide code.

In a separate speech on Thursday, ACCC chairman Rod Sims said the idea of a new code had merit, as long as breaches could be prosecuted under the Competition and Consumer Act.


Public hospital defends woman giving birth alone

A SYDNEY hospital says it wasn't understaffed at the time a woman was forced to give birth on her own and hasn't received a complaint from the new mother about her care.

The NSW government's budget cuts have been blamed for the "incredibly distressing" incident in the early hours of Wednesday morning.

The Mount Druitt woman was reportedly forced to take painkillers from her own handbag to ease the pain of labour in the maternity suite at Blacktown Hospital.

She gave birth to a daughter before waiting up to 10 minutes before nursing staff arrived, the Nine Network reports.

"This is an incredibly distressing case and the health minister needs to explain how on earth this was allowed to happen," said opposition health spokesman Andrew McDonald.

He said other patients in the room came to the woman's aid after she called out for help.

But David Simmonds, acting director of nursing and midwifery at Blacktown Hospital, said the woman had not complained about her care.

"We take all patient complaints seriously. In this case staff have spoken regularly with the patient, however she has not raised a complaint," he said in a statement on Friday.

"We are looking into this matter and, as with all matters, we will investigate it thoroughly."

Mr Simmonds said the birthing and maternity units at Blacktown-Mt Druitt Hospital were well staffed with highly trained midwives.

"The maternity unit had a full complement of staff at the time," he said.

"Birth can be unpredictable and can at times come on quite quickly.

"Staff provided regular monitoring of the patient and offered the best possible care in the timeframe."


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