Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Reality bites the compassion-mongers

ONE of the joys of the hand-wringing game is never having to say you’re sorry.

Six years ago the editorial writers at The Age declared that a stain had been removed from the nation’s soul.

“That stain,” the newspaper continued, “was the inhumane, barbarous stance towards asylum-seekers that had presumed them guilty merely because of their existence and then condemned to indefinite detention.”

It would be too much to expect the former broadsheet to ­acknowledge its blunder or that the result of the policies it supported had been an unmitigated disaster. Nonetheless, there are hopeful signs that the compassion contest in which the bien pensant have been engaging since 2001 is losing its heat. A sense of reality is finally starting to permeate the debate, albeit slowly.

Nobody these days talks about “push factors”, since the relationship between the number of arrivals and the ease of gaining asylum is clear.

Let’s take a look at the scoreboard. Between 2002 and 2007, when the Pacific Solution was in place, there were 288 arrivals. From 2008 to last year, when the rules were eased, there were 51,796 arrivals.

That obvious fact, that an open-borders policy will attract many who are simply trying to game the system, is also sinking in. “Many people will dismiss this boatload of Sri Lankans as naive economic opportunists,” The Age editorialised last week, “and well they might be.”

By world standards Sri Lanka is not a particularly oppressive place. There is no reason to doubt former Labor foreign minister Bob Carr’s assessment that the theory of Tamil persecution is “an urban myth”.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ latest country report on Sri Lanka notes unresolved land rights and property disputes but raises no major objections to the resettlement of people who had fled the conflict.

Nevertheless, the myth refuses to die. The return of the refugees was like sending Jews back to Nazi Germany, Malcolm Fraser unhelpfully suggested.

Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs told the ABC’s 7.30 you had to go back to 1947 to find a precedent when the British turned the SS Exodus away from Palestine.

Operation Sovereign Borders? More like “Operation Slaughter”, says ABC presenter Waleed Aly who writes: “By sending asylum-seekers into the arms of the Sri Lankan navy we’re returning them to their torturers.”

Yet even Aly admits — in the last paragraph when he thinks we’ve stopped reading — that “it’s entirely possible these people are economic migrant (sic) and not refugees”.

But having invested so much in the narrative of compassion, and having argued for so long that mandatory detention and offshore processing are evil, rather than a means to deter a greater evil, it is very difficult for those who opposed the Pacific Solution to change tack.

Compassion is not an ideology; it’s a form of piety, an expression of an uncommon moral sensitivity that separates the righteous from the herd.

It is inherently judgmental since it must constantly define itself in relation to those it deems as uncompassionate. It refuses to allow that a strong border policy could be driven by an equally compassionate principle, the principle of stopping people from drowning.

Compassion requires victims, vulnerable people worthy of our benevolence, or at least our benevolent thoughts.

Plucky Tamils and desperate (always desperate) asylum-seekers more generally have played the part well through the years, and it is hard to let them go.

Hence the eagerness of the intelligentsia to believe that a “suicide wave” was sweeping Christmas Island, despite authoritative accounts to the contrary. The need for victims tempts otherwise rational people to suspend disbelief entirely.

It began on Tuesday with a press release from Ian Rintoul of the Refugee Action Coalition claiming: “Up to 10 mothers in the family camp have attempted suicide in the last two days on Christmas Island.”

That evening, Triggs put the authority of the Human Rights Commission behind the story, telling ABC viewers: “We’ve had reports that have been confirmed during the day that 10 women have attempted suicide.”

On Wednesday, The Age couldn’t resist beating up the story further: “A wave of attempted suicides has swept Christmas Island as 12 mothers tried to kill themselves in the belief their then-orphaned children would have to be settled in Australia.”

From then the story started to collapse. By the end of the day Triggs, speaking to The Guardian Australia, had reduced her claim to seven women who had “attempted suicide, threatened suicide or self-harmed”.

Even that proved to be over-egging it once the Immigration Department came out with the facts. There had been only one suicide attempt from a woman who had survived, and she wasn’t a mother.

Rintoul, the source of the original story, admitted to The Australian’s Paige Taylor: “I probably shouldn’t have said attempted suicide ... People drinking concoctions of shampoo or detergent generally don’t die.”

The Age’s Fairfax stablemate, The Canberra Times, condemned the whole thing as “a furphy”, as indeed it was.

So what was achieved by abandoning the Pacific Solution, “a spineless creed cloaked in cheap, insensitive political posturing” as The Age called it?

Australia is one of fewer than two dozen countries in the world that sets aside a portion of its annual migrant intake for humanitarian aims, and the size of the program makes it one of the most generous.

Yet the program, operated in close consultation with the UNHCR, has been effectively frozen for the past few years as officials process many thousands of applications from people arriving by boat. Meanwhile, millions who have been displaced in the Middle East, notably in Syria, and in Africa, have no hope of finding shelter in Australia unless they are able and willing to pay a large entry fee to criminal gangs indifferent to the loss of human life.

The fraudulent claim that an open borders policy is “compassionate” has been exposed. It is time we asked for our word back.


School suspensions hits record high in NSW, system broken and in need of complete review

New NSW Department of Education figures showing a 35 per cent rise in the number of students being sent home from school for bad behaviour (SMH, p3), is a major concern because studies show the suspension system rarely creates positive outcomes for the pupil or the community, NSW's peak body for youth affairs warned today.

“We know suspensions are largely ineffective in improving student behaviour and in the majority of cases simply exacerbate root problems,” Youth Action Director Eamon Waterford said.

“What’s truly disturbing about this rapid recent increase is that suspensions used to be an option only in the case of violent or highly antisocial behaviour. But youth workers across the state are reporting a sharp rise in suspensions for 'persistent misbehaviour' in children as young as five.

"Youth workers are telling us they are encountering more and more students suspended for repeated truancy. You don’t have to be top of the class to recognise the logical blunder there.”

Mr Waterford said the suspension system was not just a problem for the students suspended.

“Suspension is a blunt tool and its impact ripples out widely,” Mr Waterford said.

“Struggling students sent home for 4 weeks are only ending up further behind in their classwork. This means that suspension is only further entrenching a young person’s lack of interest in school. This has impacts on long-term employment and increases the burden on our welfare system."

Mr Waterford said the NSW Government should use the startling statistics to immediately prepare for a complete review of the suspension system.

“The NSW Government should not waste this crisis – they should conduct a full review of the school suspension system,” Mr Waterford said.

“It doesn’t need to be too tricky. Thankfully, we already have a good idea of what works: and that’s good school counsellors and in-school youth workers. As things stand, NSW schools are chronically understaffed to support students in the school, which is why they’re being forced to suspend students.

“If we want better students, better citizens, and a better society we need to be actively addressing behaviour in schools – not just putting the problem out of sight and out of mind.”


Murdoch on global warming

News Corp chairman Rupert Murdoch has dubbed Prime Minister Tony Abbott an admirable, honest and principled man, and said Australians should not be building windmills and "all that rubbish".

In an interview on Sky News on Sunday, Mr Murdoch spoke candidly about climate change, Australia's political environment and its relationship with China.

If the temperature rises 3 degrees in 100 years, "at the very most one of those [degrees] would be man-made," he said.

"If the sea level rises six inches, that's a big deal in the world, the Maldives might disappear or something, but OK, we can't mitigate that, we can't stop it, we have to stop building vast houses on seashores.

"We can be the low-cost energy country in the world. We shouldn't be building windmills and all that rubbish," he said.

"The world has been changing for thousands and thousands of years. It's just a lot more complicated because we are so much more advanced."

On Mr Abbott, Mr Murdoch said he had met him "three, four times, and the impression is that he is an admirable, honest, principled man and somebody that we really need as Prime Minister who we can all look up to and admire.

"However, how much does he understand free markets and what should be happening? I don’t know. Only time will tell. It's too early to make a judgment on this government."


How Tony Abbott can play his double dissolution election card

 There is no political upside to Tony Abbott calling an early election unless he has strong prospects of winning. Nevertheless, the prospect of a double dissolution election should cannot be written off.
There is no political upside to Tony Abbott calling an early election unless he has strong prospects of winning. Nevertheless, the prospect of a double dissolution election cannot be written off. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
As sure as night follows day, government defeats in the Senate lead to suggestions of a double dissolution. Prime Minister Tony Abbott has fuelled this by saying such an election may be held in six to 12 months if the Senate does not fall into line.

A double dissolution means an early election at which all members of the House of Representatives and Senate are elected, as opposed to a normal election at which only half the Senate is chosen. It offers the only means of cutting short the six-year terms of the micro-party Senators chosen at the last election.

A prime minister can call a double dissolution under section 57 of the Constitution when there is a deadlock between the House of Representatives and the Senate. The Senate must fail to pass a bill that has gone through the House of Representatives, and this must occur again after three months have elapsed.

When this happens, the government gains a trigger to call an early election. Such polls are often threatened, but rarely held. Australia has had double dissolution elections only six times, the most recent being more than a quarter of a century ago. They were in 1914, 1951, 1974, 1975, 1983 and 1987.

Given this record, the smart money would be on Parliament running its full term. If nothing else, there is no political upside to Abbott calling an early election unless he has strong prospects of winning, and the polls do not suggest this.

A double dissolution may also amplify his problems with the Senate. Electing the whole of the Senate in one go means the quota to win a seat is almost halved, from 14.3 per cent to 7.7 per cent. A lower quota, with the prospect of more micro party senators, is hardly desirable for a Prime Minister wanting a more pliable upper house.

Nevertheless, the prospect of a double dissolution election cannot be written off. It can still offer significant upsides to Abbott if approached in the right way.

First, such an election should not be called until Parliament has reformed the Senate voting process. It is widely recognised that this is broken, as micro parties can game the system to produce a lottery-like effect by which a candidate with an infinitesimal number of first preference votes can win a seat.

Parliament’s joint standing committee on electoral matters recently reached a consensus on how this should be fixed. It recommends the system be changed so people can indicate their preferences both above and below the line on the Senate voting ticket.

This means voters, and not parties, control the flow of preferences. A double dissolution election held under these rules can advantage those parties and candidates that attract a significant number of votes. Micro parties with little support will not be elected.

Second, a double dissolution can be held close to the time of the next federal election. This allows the government to run almost to full term and lessen the political downsides.

The constitution says a double dissolution cannot take place within six months of the expiry of the House of Representatives. With it due to expire on November 11, 2016, a double dissolution election needs to be called by May 11, 2016. The result may be a mid-2016 double dissolution election, rather than a normal general election a few months later.

Third, a double dissolution may offer the only means for the government to pass some of its more contentious policies. This is because the procedure also provides a special way to enact disputed legislation.

If the deadlocked bills are still not passed after a double dissolution election, a re-elected Prime Minister can call a joint sitting of Parliament at which both houses vote collectively on the bills. As the constitution requires the House of Representatives to be twice the size of the Senate, a government can win such a vote when its lower house majority offsets its deficit in the Senate.

Only one double dissolution has been followed by a joint sitting. That was in 1974 when the Whitlam government used the procedure to enact reforms including Medibank (now Medicare) and one-vote, one-value in the allocation of voters to electoral districts. A double dissolution may be the only viable means for Abbott to bring about changes such as those to higher education and a GP co-payment.

People should be sceptical about Australia heading to an early double dissolution election. However, it is a more likely prospect if it is held near the end of this term of Parliament and in a way that prevents more micro party senators from being elected. It can also offer Abbott an historic opportunity to enact major reforms that may otherwise never be passed by the Senate.


1 comment:

Paul said...

One could argue that the School expulsions story neglects the elephant in the room as these funding requests usually do, and that is the failure of parenting in the modern, morally relative world.