Tuesday, March 04, 2014

These elitist hate-speech laws erode democracy

James Allan

Neil Brown, QC, a Liberal minister in the Fraser government, has counselled Tony Abbott not to repeal our section 18C hate speech laws.

He says doing so risks "giving the green light to racists". Instead, he suggests a convoluted compromise that basically leaves in place the "you can't offend me" legislation.

Well, not to put too fine a point on it, but Brown and all the proponents of hate speech laws that legislate against "offending", "insulting", "humiliating" or even "intimidating" are wrong. They're wrong on the facts. They're wrong when they look overseas. And they're wrong about what is needed in a healthy, well-functioning democracy.

Let's start by playing the man, rather than the ball. Our hate speech laws were enacted in 1995. Brown was a cabinet member in a government years before that. If he thought not having these laws amounted to a green light, why didn't the Fraser government enact these sort of illiberal laws?

First a few facts. In the US there are no hate speech laws of any kind. In France there are plenty. Where do you think Jews or Muslims are better integrated into society as equal citizens? I ask that question seriously, and can recast it using Germany and other countries with hate speech laws.

Do you do more for minority groups by encouraging a victim mentality or by asking them to grow a thick skin and, when insulted or offended or humiliated, to respond by saying why the speaker is wrong? The latter approach is recommended by every great liberal philosopher from John Stewart Mill onwards. And it was the basis on which the Fraser government did not legislate against hate speech.

Oh, then there is that bastion of political correctness, my native Canada, where the federal parliament last year repealed similar hate speech laws. Are Canada and the US places all hate speech law supporters will be avoiding because of all the green lights for racists?

Or are those green lights just plain bunk, because Brown doesn't understand that the best response to racists is to speak back and say why they're wrong, rather than turn them into martyrs?

Then there is the old canard - always pulled out of the cupboard when the rest of the argument sucks - of "let's all point to Nazi Germany".

Leave aside the fact it is insulting to Australians today to have any argument implicitly rest on the premise that we are somehow like Weimar Germany, and realise that, for more than a decade before Hitler came to power, the Weimar regime did have hate speech laws and did have prosecutions for anti-Semitic speech. Convictions, too. And that sort of "suppress, suppress, suppress" mindset worked out how, exactly?

You need to ask yourself what you expect hate-speech laws to accomplish if you support them. There are only three possibilities. One is that you want to hide from the victims of such nasty speech how the speakers honestly feel about them. It's a sort of "give them a false sense of security" goal.

Another is you hope to reform the speaker. You know, fine them and lock them up and maybe they'll see the errors of their ways.

But both those supposed good outcomes of hate speech laws are patent nonsense. So that leaves a third possibility, one I believe almost all proponents of these laws implicitly suppose justifies their illiberal position.The goal of hate speech laws is to stop listeners who hear nasty words from being convinced by such speech.

In other words, it is plain distrust of the abilities of one's fellow citizens to see through the rantings of neo-Nazis that requires us to have these laws. It works on a sort of latter-day aristocratic premise, that we may be able to trust the good sense of a sociology professor but God help us if a mere plumber or secretary should be exposed to a Holocaust denier or someone whose tone gets a bit out of hand.

If there was a polite way to express my disdain for that sort of elitist bull, I would use it. But there isn't. So I will just say it is wholly misconceived.

Australians are no more prone to being sucked in by offensive or hateful speech than North Americans or those with multiple degrees. And if you don't believe that, then you can't really be in favour of democracy, it seems to me.

I could go on to show how these sort of laws, always and everywhere, end up expanding to capture speakers not originally intended to be captured by them; or how the bureaucracies that administer them become havens of speech-restricting world views. Instead I simply say Australians need section 18C to be repealed in its entirety. That's what Abbott implicitly promised. So let's have it done now.


No wonder SPC are in trouble

Below is an announcement from 10 years ago  -- still on the AWU website

I gather that some of these onerous provisions have subsequently wound back but the fact that they were put in place shows what a hostile union SPC has had to deal with.  Keeping any business alive would be difficult in such circumstances

In the first time in two decades for the Goulburn Valley, workers at the SPC Ardmona fruit processing and canning plant in Shepparton have won a shorter working week following six days of industrial action.

The workers, who are members of the Australian Workers' Union along with the AMWU, CEPU-ETU and FEDFA, won an agreement from SPC Ardmona for a 13.5 per cent improvement in salary conditions including an extra 8 days of leisure time by the third year of the agreement.

AWU National Secretary Bill Shorten was in Shepparton this morning when the workers returned to work. He said that whilst the employees didn't want to take industrial action during the busy harvest period, they felt that their issues had been ignored by management and they were forced into the action they took.

"The SPC Ardmona maintenance workers have never taken strike action during harvest time before; these are the same workers who in 1990 took voluntary pay cuts to save the company. They are proud of their work and proud of their important place in the economy of the Goulburn Valley." Mr. Shorten said.

"There has been a lot of change at SPC Ardmona over the last few years, we think this dispute could have been avoided if SPC management realised that what makes the SPC brand so important and valuable is the people who have made SPC what it is today - that is the workforce at the original SPC factory in Shepparton."

"By taking legally protected industrial action for the last six days these workers have had a victory that will change the way they work at SPC forever. We are the AWU will be continuing our campaign to win greater leisure time for our members across the country."


Curriculum and teacher education review: a necessary evil

The federal department of education and, by extension, the federal minister do not have direct control over any schools, do not employ any teachers and do not provide any essential services to schools. The influence of the federal government on the operation and priorities of schools is largely limited to wielding the carrot and stick of funding. The previous federal government used this approach with a heavy hand.

Current Education Minister Christopher Pyne's strategy is quite different. On funding, he has given schools stability for the next four years while a new, hopefully more fiscally responsible, funding model is developed. He has withdrawn the cumbersome and pointless accountability requirements attached to this funding. The push for school autonomy via the Independent Public Schools policy seems aspirational rather than authoritarian.

While he may have strong ideas about what schools and school systems ought to be doing, Minister Pyne has chosen to focus on the areas where he is most likely to have some impact - curriculum and teacher education. Fortuitously, both are fundamental to education standards in the long term.

The curriculum review is a necessary evil. The ideal scenario would be to have no national curriculum at all, since such a beast will always be politicised and biased in some way, whether it be towards a conservative or a progressive agenda.

Given that we do have a national curriculum, however, it needs to be scrutinised. And, given that the national curriculum is already in use in many schools, and the reviewers' tight time-frame, the review can necessarily seek only to identify the most serious deficiencies in the short-term. Make no mistake, content is critical. What children learn is just as important as how they learn.

The same is true of the teacher education review. Despite dozens of reviews of teacher education and countless surveys over the last decade, which consistently find that new teachers are underprepared to teach after four years at university, little has changed in most education faculties.

When a primary teaching degree has courses with names like 'Supporting Students to Be Environmental Change Agents', you know something has gone very wrong somewhere. Reforming teacher education will be a tough task, but it's difficult to think of a more worthy one.


Let’s dump Great Barrier Reef dredging myths

Mr Reichelt mentions it obliquely but it deserves pointing out WHY good landfill material is being dumped at sea.  It is because Greenies won't let it be dumped on land!  Dredged material used to be used to fill in swamps and mangroves.  Most of the Cairns foreshore was built up that way. I watched the dredge TSS Trinity Bay discharging into polders there when I was a boy.  But swamps are now "wetlands" so must not be touched

AUTHOR:  Russell Reichelt,  Chairman and Chief Executive of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority’s recent decision to allow 3 million cubic metres of dredge material to be disposed of 25 kilometres off Abbot Point in north Queensland has attracted passionate commentary around the world.

Millions of people from Australia and overseas have a fierce desire to protect one of the world’s most beautiful natural wonders. As the independent body managing the Great Barrier Reef for future generations, all of us at the Authority understand and share that desire: it’s what makes us want to come to work every day.

But the debate about Abbot Point has been marked by considerable misinformation, including claims about “toxic sludge”, dumping coal on the reef and even mining the reef. Late last week, it was confirmed that our decision to allow the dredge disposal will be challenged in court.

So what’s true, and what’s not? I hope with this article, I can clear up some of those misunderstandings on behalf of the Authority, particularly about our role, the nature and scale of the dredge disposal activity, and its likely environmental impacts.

If you still have questions at the end of this article, I and others from our team at the Authority will be reading your comments below and we’ll do our best to reply to further questions on The Conversation.

A sizeable challenge

At 344,400 square kilometres, the Marine Park is roughly the same area as Japan or Italy.

Of this vast and richly diverse expanse, one-third is highly protected; some places are near pristine, while others are feeling the effects of centuries of human uses.

But rather than locking the entire area away, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority’s (GBRMPA) role — as set out under Australian law — is to protect the region’s ecosystem, while also ensuring it remains a multiple-use marine park open to sustainable use. This includes tourism, commercial fishing, shipping and other operations.

While there are five major ports in the region, to this day only 1% of the World Heritage Area is set aside for ports. Most of the region’s 12 ports existed long before the Marine Park was created in 1975, and nearly all fall inside the World Heritage Area, but outside the park itself.

Responding to “toxic” claims

Among the many claims made about the Abbot Point decision is the assertion that the “Reef will be dredged” and that “toxic sludge” will be dumped in marine waters.

Both of those claims are simply wrong, as are suggestions that coal waste will be unloaded into the Reef, that this natural wonder is about to be mined, or that Abbot Point is a new coal port.

The reality is that disposal of dredge material of this type in the Marine Park is not new. It has occurred off nearly all major regional centres along the reef’s coastline before now.

It is a highly regulated activity and does not allow material to be placed on coral, seagrass or sensitive marine environments.

The material itself in Abbot Bay is about 60% sand and 40% silt and clay, which is similar to what you would see if you dug up the site where the material is to be relocated.

In addition, testing by accredited laboratories shows the material is not toxic, and is therefore suitable for ocean disposal.

Limiting new port development

As Queensland’s population has grown over the past 150 years, so too have the size and number of ports along the Great Barrier Reef coastline.

We recognise the potential environmental risks posed at a local level by this growth, which is why we have strongly advocated limiting port development to existing major ports — such as Abbot Point — as opposed to developing new sites.

This will produce a far better outcome than a proliferation of many, albeit smaller, ports along the coastline. And that’s not just our view: it’s a view shared by the UNESCO World Heritage Committee, which oversees the Great Barrier Reef’s listing as one of Australia’s 19 World Heritage sites.

Given Abbot Point has been a major port for the past 30 years, our approval of the dredge disposal permit application from North Queensland Bulk Ports is entirely consistent with this position.

The added benefit of the port is its access to naturally deep waters, meaning it requires less capital dredging than other ports. It also has a much lower need for maintenance dredging.

What’s being done to protect the reef?

With this as our backdrop, we analysed the potential impacts and risks to the Great Barrier Reef from disposing dredge spoil off Abbot Point within the Marine Park.

In this case, we reached the conclusion that with 47 stringent conditions in place, it could be done in a way that makes us confident there will be no significant impact on the reef’s world heritage values.

These safeguards are designed specifically to ensure potential impacts are avoided, mitigated or offset, and to prevent harm to the environmental, cultural or heritage values associated with the nearby Holbourne Island fringing reef, Nares Rock, and the Catalina World War II wreck.

Our conditions are in addition to those already imposed by the federal government in prior approvals.

Again, just to clear up any confusion: the dredge material will not be “dumped on the reef”.

Instead, we are looking at an area within the Marine Park that is about 25 kilometres east-northeast of the port at Abbot Point, and about 40 kilometres from the nearest offshore reef.

When the dredge disposal occurs, the material will only be allowed to be placed in a defined 4 square kilometre site free of hard corals, seagrass beds and other sensitive habitats.

If oceanographic conditions such as tides, winds, waves and currents are likely to produce adverse impacts, the disposal will not be allowed to proceed.

As an added precaution, the activity can only happen between March and June, as this falls outside the coral spawning and seagrass growth periods. As the sand, silt and clay itself will be dredged in stages over three years, the annual disposal volume will be capped at 1.3 million cubic metres.

Compared with other sites in this region, it is much less than has been done in the past. For example, in 2006 there were 8.6 million cubic metres of similar sediments excavated and relocated in one year at Hay Point, near Mackay. Scientific monitoring showed no significant effects on the ecosystem.

The dredge disposal from Abbot Point will be a highly managed activity — and it will not, as some headlines have suggested, mean the Great Barrier Reef will become a sludge repository or that tonnes of mud will be dumped on coral reefs.

This is not Gladstone Harbour all over again

I have often heard during this debate that Abbot Point will become “another Gladstone”.

I can assure you that GBRMPA understands strongly the need to learn the lessons from past port developments, including ones like Gladstone that fall outside of the Marine Park. This is why the recommendations from an independent review into Gladstone Harbour have been factored into our conditions.

Much of the criticism of the development at Gladstone Harbour centred on monitoring and who was doing it. This is why one the most common questions we’ve heard at GBRMPA about Abbot Point is “Who is going to make sure this is all done properly?”

The answer is: there will be multiple layers of independent oversight. Indeed, past authors on The Conversation have used Townsville’s port as a good example of how local impacts can be managed safely through transparent, independent monitoring and reporting, and active on-site management.

This is why we will have a full-time staff member from GBRMPA located at the port to oversee and enforce compliance during dredge disposal operations. This supervisor has the power to stop, suspend or modify works to ensure conditions are met.

In addition, an independent technical advice panel and an independent management response group will be formed. Membership of both these bodies will need the approval of GBRMPA.

Importantly, the management response group will include expert scientists as well as representatives from the tourism and fishing industries, and conservation groups. Together, GBRMPA and those other independent scrutineers will be overseeing the disposal, and will have the final say — not North Queensland Bulk Ports, which operates Abbot Point, or the coal companies that use the port.

Water quality monitoring will take place in real-time to measure factors such as suspended solids, turbidity and light availability. This is in addition to a long-term water quality monitoring program that will run for five years — much longer than what is normally required.

It’s vital that there is utmost transparency and scrutiny of what happens. We believe that with our staff on the job, plus independent oversight that includes the community, it will be a highly transparent process.

What are limits of the Authority’s powers?

It is true to say that despite all these safeguards, placing dredge material on land rather than in the Marine Park remains our preferred choice, providing it does not mean transferring environmental impact to sensitive wetlands connected to the reef ecosystem.

Indeed, land-based disposal is an option that must always be examined under national dredging guidelines.

But we recognise onshore disposal is not always immediately practical. Some of the challenges include finding suitable land, the need for dredge settlement ponds and delivery pipelines, and potential impacts on surrounding environments.

Ultimately, what occurs on land is outside of GBRMPA’s jurisdiction. We do not make decisions about mines, railways and loading facilities, and have never had the power to compel a port authority to place dredged material onshore or to build an extension to existing jetties.

Nor do we have the ability to stop dredge disposal from occurring in port limits that fall inside the World Heritage Area, but outside of the Marine Park.

Our legislative powers simply enable us to approve or reject a permit application for an action in the Marine Park, or to approve it with conditions.

Based on the considerable scientific evidence before us, we approved the application for Abbot Point with conditions, on the basis that potential impacts from offshore disposal were manageable and that there would be no significant or lasting impacts on the reef’s world heritage values.


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