Sunday, July 06, 2014


In his latest offering, conservative Australian cartoonist ZEG is moved by the Rolf Harris story to ask if the entertainment industry is just as bent as the church

Eric Abetz puts pressure on new senators to restore full powers to building industry watchdog

Employment Minister Eric Abetz says the new Senate must urgently pass laws to restore the full powers of the building industry watchdog, seizing on new revelations of construction union stand over tactics and links to the underworld.

Senator Abetz has also questioned the close links between Victorian Labor leader Daniel Andrews and the CFMEU, as well as the decision by former Labor prime minister Julia Gillard and opposition leader Bill Shorten to strip the watchdog of evidence-gathering powers.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott on Thursday said while he did not want to comment on matters that may be coming before the royal commission and had not seen the Fairfax Media report, he said the government had "deep concerns about the illegality, about rorts, rackets and rip-offs inside a number of unions".

"The point I keep making is if you're a decent, honest worker, if you're a decent, honest union member, you want your union to be run honestly and efficiently," he told Fairfax Radio 3AW.

"That's why I think Bill Shorten is really letting his party down by being as critical of the royal commission as he's being."

Signaling industrial relations reform will be front and centre of the government's political agenda in the new Senate, Senator Abetz told Fairfax Media the restoration of the ABCC [Australian Building and Construction Commission]  was a "very high priority for the government" and that he had already discussed the ABCC laws, which were passed by the House late last year, with cross-bench senators who will take their seats next week.

Mr Abbott raised the ABCC bill with Motoring Enthusiast senator Ricky Muir when the pair met on Wednesday.

"The Government has a clear mandate to re-introduce the ABCC, having taken the policy to the last two elections," he said.

Fairfax Media revealed on Thursday a string of accusations from Melbourne developer, Peter Chiavaroli, who says the CFMEU demanded he employ union boss John Setka's brother-in-law and best friend in exchange for industrial peace.

The laws to restore the full powers of the ABCC, which will bolster the watchdog's powers, could be put to a vote as soon as next week.

Those powers, stripped away by Labor, will give the building watchdog additional scope to gather evidence.

The move to pass the legislation comes as the Royal Commission into trade unions shines the spotlight on the CMFEU in hearings scheduled to be held in Melbourne next week.

Questioned on Thursday as to whether the government would launch an investigation into this apparent leak from the royal commission, Mr Abbott said that he would "have a look at the report in question and if any further action is required, well, we'll have a look at it".

Senator Abetz said Mr Chiavaroli's allegations about the CFMEU's were gravely concerning and that they had "no place in any Australia  workplace".

"They once again confirm the urgent need for the return of the ABCC and the absolute irresponsibility of Labor and the Greens in opposing it," he said.

"Incidents like this dramatically illustrate the need for the ABCC to have additional evidence-gathering powers, which are common amongst other law enforcement bodies, but were removed by Julia Gillard and Bill Shorten.

"If the ABCC has the power to compel witnesses to provide evidence then it will avoid situations like this in which individuals are threatened with retribution if they voluntarily go to the ABCC."

Senator Abetz said it had been clear for some time that Mr Setka was not an appropriate person to lead the CMFEU in Victoria.

"This was made perfectly clear in the Myer Emporium dispute in 2012 and even more clear when his union received a record fine for criminal contempt of court earlier this year," he said.

"It is extremely concerning that the Victorian Labor Leader Daniel Andrews continues to so closely associate with such rogue union bosses."

Mr Setka's links to Victorian Labor's Left faction have long been a political sore point for Mr Andrews, who has been under pressure to distance himself from the militant CFMEU, which is a large donor to the ALP in Victoria.

In a statement, CFMEU national secretary Dave Noonan said the rehashed allegations had been examined by the building watchdog several years ago, which had taken no further action.

"The allegations were made by a Liberal Party donor, Peter Chiavaroli, director of West Homes," he said.

"The union will be writing to the Royal Commission regarding leaks to the media of proposed witnesses and issues that will be heard at the Royal Commission."


Greens in turmoil over fuel tax

You would think that Greens would welcome a fuel tax increase but this lot show their complete lack of principle by opposing it.  To them hatred of the conservative government comes first

Continuing anger within the Greens over the party's "perverse" decision to block inflation-based adjustments to the federal petrol tax rate could spell fresh trouble for its leader, Christine Milne.

The Abbott government wants to restore indexation to the excise, which has been frozen at 38¢ a litre for 12 years.

The move would add between 40¢ and 60¢ a week to the average household fuel bill.

Senator Milne, who first flagged supporting the change and then announced her party's opposition after losing the debate in her party room, could now face pressure for a second U-turn, this time led by a grassroots members' revolt.

NSW senator Lee Rhiannon is pushing to overturn the stance amid what one Greens member called "despair" across the green base.

A meeting has been called for Saturday at the Sydney Mechanics Institute, where NSW branch members are expected to advocate a return to the party's original position in the interests of policy integrity.

In a sign of the intense divisions over the issue, Senator Rhiannon has invited members to have their say, even though the policy has been finalised, setting up a situation in which the party room has one policy and the membership another.

The Greens' constitution in NSW means Senator Rhiannon could be compelled by the membership to vote contrary to her leader, although that would have to come from a formal council meeting.

Despite that risk, Senator Rhiannon used a party-wide email to declare she was "interested to hear from members" about the issue.

Last week Senator Milne said the party would block the increase because the government would not use the money raised to invest in public transport, or to cut fuel subsidies for large mining companies.

But Greens inside the party room and in the broader movement conceded that the main reason for opposing the increase was "political".

The main advocates of the change were Deputy Leader Adam Bandt, Ms Milne's fellow Tasmanian senator Peter Whish-Wilson, and West Australian senator Scott Ludlam.

A senior Greens source called it politics over policy.  "They just can't come at giving Tony Abbott a win, even where it is consistent with our own policy," the exasperated member complained.

The decision appears to have doomed the $4 billion budget measure because the Coalition had been relying on support from the Greens to get it through the Senate.

It was not an unreasonable expectation. Historically, the Greens have favoured higher relative prices for polluting fossil fuels.

Greens senators have received "stacks" of emails from disappointed constituents over the reversal, as well as official correspondence from at least one state branch protesting against the decision.

The fight over petrol comes as some in the renewable energy sector expressed concerns over the Greens' handling of the Clive Palmer compromise to ditch the carbon tax but keep the renewable energy target, the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, and the Climate Change Authority


Latest poll figures fail to tell the real story behind Newman Government’s achievements

IT IS nine months until the next Queensland election is due, and we are beginning to see the shape and conditions of the battleground upon which the LNP’s Campbell Newman will defend his 2012 landslide victory.

The Premier’s massive majority and unwieldy backbench was always going to be hard to handle, and it has been.

Two LNP members have resigned – one, Scott Driscoll, in disgrace, and the other, Chris Davis, in disillusion – and four others have defected to the cross benches, sitting with the Palmer United and Katter parties.

Labor has boosted its miserable numbers from seven MPs to eight and is confident of winning the electorate of Stafford at a by-election this month.

After Mr Newman scored his stunning victory – as the first Brisbane-based conservative premier since 1915 – everyone assumed the LNP would win one more election easily and possibly make it three. Now, while Mr Newman and his party remain firm favourites to prevail, people are hedging bets. Recent opinion polls have given some weight to this caution, although some are more believable than others. What we do know from looking at the reliable Courier-Mail/Galaxy poll and other surveys is that there is a large, and possibly growing, group of voters who are parking a protest vote with minor parties and possible independents.

Some of these surveys suggest an electorate that is divided in thirds, with the LNP and Labor holding about two-thirds of the ground – or a bit more – and the “others” holding anywhere between a quarter and a third of the vote. This total includes a static Greens vote of 8 per cent, the same as in 2012. The bulk of the non-Labor and LNP vote has been picked up by the insurgent Palmer United Party, rallying behind the mercurial Sunshine Coast federal MP Clive Palmer. Through his unconventional, nonsense-style politics, Mr Palmer is appealing to voters confused by the major government parties, who, despite governing strongly in most regards, have at times shown a susceptibility to distraction.

A mix of platitudes and pie-in-the-sky promises – such as an unrealistic pledge to boost pensions by 20 per cent – has given Mr Palmer an easy entry into the lounge rooms, work rooms and conversations of families, especially those in outer suburban, provincial and regional communities.

Queensland is bouncing back economically, with growth returning to sectors hit hard by the fall in property prices, the global financial crisis and the high dollar.

There are good stories to tell among small businesses in Brisbane and the southeast as well as in tourism throughout the state and on farms from the Cape to the Tweed.

Queensland is in great shape.

Mr Newman is a tough, no-nonsense leader. He does not shy away from a fight. A more passionate and committed state leader in Australia today would be hard to find. Sometimes that raw passion and honesty can get the Premier into scrapes and fights he might be best avoiding.

He has a good story to tell about Queensland.

Any benefit Labor has received lately has been accidental and by default. The party has done nothing to make up for the years of mismanagement and neglect, and the small band of MPs has failed to present any alternative vision or policies for the state.

This is why, despite the apparent closeness of the polls, Labor is not within a bull’s roar of winning the next election. There is next to no chance the people of Queensland will trust Labor again with the keys to the Treasury so soon after the 2012 defeat and without an apology and new vision.

That we face a much more open contest than anyone imagined is good and bad news for the major parties.

It is bad news because both the LNP and Labor are languishing in the mid-to-low 30s in terms of support, making the task of getting into a winning position that much harder.

It is also good news, however, as these voters are there to be won back.

It will take courage, honesty and openness, which is surely not too much to ask.


Australian hate-speech laws: no dissent allowed

The Australian government is currently trying to amend Section 18C of the Australian Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (RDA). This is the section which asserts that speech content, judged objectively after the event, must not ‘offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people’. Sadly, what is noticeable about the debate so far is the tendency of those in favour of S18C to ignore or treat with contempt the idea of free speech. Below are 10 ways in which those advocating S18C and hate-speech laws in general are dodging, stifling and running away from the debate.

1) Reliance on abstractions

All censors abhor definite standards. Vagueness is always to be preferred. In times past, it was the elastic tendency-based criminal law of sedition, blasphemy, defamation and obscenity. Nowadays, the obscurantism is expressed in two words, ‘hate speech’, to which an ‘identity-specific’ adjective such as ‘racist’ is applied. Yet apart from Holocaust denial and exhibitionist displays of racial prejudice, particularly at sporting events, on public transport and, more widely, by electronic means – both of which are instantly recognisable – no exact definition of racist hate speech is proffered. As with hardcore pornography, we are all expected to recognise it when we see or read it.

As Eatock v Bolt (2011) and Clark v Nationwide News Ltd (2012) demonstrate, the vagueness of S18C operates to restrict public discussion in controversies about ‘race, colour or national or ethnic origin of [persons or groups]’. The supporters of S18C happily proclaim the discretionary flexibility of the formulation ‘offensive, insulting, humiliating or intimidating’ speech as S18C’s great virtue. The context in which the section is defended is characterised by the use of fashionable but unenlightening abstractions, most notably: ‘diversity’, ‘harmony’, ‘inclusion’, ‘respect’, ‘dignity’, ‘marginalisation’ and ‘cultural sensitivity’. The censor’s obscurantism is buttressed by demands that ‘systemic’, ‘unconscious’ or ‘normative’ racism must be stamped out. When Paul Keating’s Labor government introduced the bill for S18C in 1995, the rationale was that racist speech was a form of violence which could be more harmful than physical violence.

The propositions that you can be a racist without knowing it, and that words can, as it were, break your bones (and spirit), are surely in need of debate. But instead of being up for debate, these ideas are treated as doctrinal. Moreover, the all-pervasive vagueness attaching to the words ‘racism’ and ‘racist’, and the relative ease with which accusations of racism are made, have debased both words. The proponents of S18C censorship bear the burden of identifying exactly what it is they say should be censored. Their rationale for doing so, however, remains an enduring mystery.

2) Ignore one awkward concrete problem

There is another category of ‘racist hate speech’ which extends the reach of S18C. It is interpreted by the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) as applicable, selectively, to ethno-religious speech conduct. It is only recently that the archaic Christianity-specific common-law prohibitions on blasphemy have become obsolete. This reflects the reality of the secular state: there should no legally privileged categories of ideas and especially no entanglement of the state in religion. The suggestion that, in order to avoid hurting another person’s religious sensibilities, an individual should be compelled to display ‘respect’ for a religious belief or practice – or the concept of religion itself – which that individual may regard as rank superstition, or that an attack on a religious idea or practice in itself amounts to racism, is profoundly anti-democratic, no matter how much it is dressed up in secular pieties about ‘inclusion’.

However, S18C and some Australian state legislation have, in effect, resurrected a statutory form of blasphemy. In an address to the United Nations in December 2012, then Australian prime minister Julia Gillard asserted that ‘denigration of religious beliefs is never acceptable’. That ‘never’ is by far the most telling recent illustration of the nature and extent of the contest between a defence of the general right to dissent and those who seek state-backed conformity in public discussion.

3) Portray S18C as a protective law

Most S18C advocates emphasise that it is designed to protect minorities, although S18C makes no such distinction. However, even at that disingenuous level, the claim is no more than wishful thinking. Nobody seems to be suggesting that the civil liability imposed by S18C (and its capricious enforcement) has deterred a single person from resorting to Holocaust denial or racist mouthing-off in public. Yet, simultaneously, its supporters trot out the arguments that S18C is little used and that its real utility is symbolic. So much for protecting minorities.

4) Fearmongering about free speech

There has been plenty of hyperbole. If enacted, attorney general George Brandis’s proposed reforms to S18C would usher in a ‘licensing of hate’, ‘give succour to racists’, and be the end of multiculturalism, nay, the end of Australia as we know it. Australia’s race discrimination commissioner went far beyond hyperbole, even, when he said that S18C guards against a repetition of the Holocaust because ‘genocide begins with words’.

5) Misrepresenting the general law

If S18C supporters exaggerate the so-called free-speech protections in S18D of the Racial Discrimination Act (which stipulates that comments made in good faith are permissible as expressions of genuine belief), they fundamentally mis-state the law of defamation and they ignore altogether the torts of intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress. They thereby disregard regimes of legal protection for actual psychological harm which apply without regard to ‘race, colour or national or ethnic origin’.

6) Make no concessions

Although the pro-S18C camp is full of acknowledgments that freedom of expression is important, there is a striking absence of any acknowledgment that dissent is central to securing that freedom. One way of testing this is to do a word search of ‘dissent’ on the online archive of AHRC publications, in surveys of social cohesion, or in the vast literature on Australian multiculturalism. As soon as the AHRC acknowledges that dissent – real dissent – is necessary to maintain the health of a free and open society, it undermines its commitment to special legal protection for privileged categories of controversial public debate. It is locked into this position largely because the concept of cultural diversity and sensitivity calls for treating all ‘cultures’ (or at least the privileged minority cultures) as worthy of equal ‘respect’. The end result is that discussion – for example, of barbaric cultural beliefs and practices (including selected religious ones) – is frowned upon for fear of ‘offending’ adherents and being ‘divisive’. This is not all that surprising. S18C is designed to suppress dissent which, by definition, is often offensive, insulting, humiliating and intimidating. Dissent brings about division, disrespect, disharmony, incivility, indignity and so on – all of which are, in theory at least, anathema to inclusiveness theory.

7) Except the ‘Irish jokes’ concession

Then there is the ‘curiouser and curiouser’ dimension of the S18C debate; that is, the unexplained acknowledgment that there are tolerable forms of public racist speech. What are we to make of the endorsement by the AHRC in its submission to the attorney general’s S18C consultation of the following statement in the Report of the National Inquiry into Racist Violence (1991)? ‘No prohibition or penalty is recommended for the simple holding of racist opinions without public expression or promotion of them or in the absence of conduct motivated by them. Nor would any of the proposed measures outlaw “casual racism”, for example the exchange of “Irish jokes”.’ (My italics)

Putting to one side the unexplained concept of ‘casual racism’, what moved the AHRC to use ‘Irish jokes’ to exemplify permissible casual racism? The Irish ambassador to Australia recently complained about the casual stereotyping of national groups in the Australian media and managed to extract a prompt apology from the Fairfax Media group (the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age), which, in an odd role-reversal for the Fourth Estate, is at the forefront of the pro-S18C censorship campaign.

8) Remind the majorities that ‘they just don’t understand’

And then there are the angry ad hominem contributions to the ‘non-debate’. The attorney general’s draft proposal for the amendment of S18C contains a provision which would impose limited civil liability according to an objective test applied by reference to ‘the standards of an ordinary reasonable member of the Australian community, not by the standards of any particular group within the Australian community’. This type of standard is entirely coherent and well-known – for example, in the law of negligence and defamation. Many in the pro-S18C camp have denounced this because, so it is said, only the victimised minorities are capable of understanding what it is to endure racist hate speech and suffer its unique psychic harm. This is a claim that is calculated to stifle debate.

9) Invoke White Australia policy

A harsher variation of the ignorance trope is advocates of S18C invoking the unedifying history of the White Australia policy (discontinued a half-century ago). The objective is clear: to signify that present-day, ordinary, reasonable (white) Australians are still not to be trusted.

10) Argue that the White majorities are ignorant

A more confrontational version of the ‘majorities are ignorant’ thesis is the claim made by one prominent commentator in the Age that there are two types of Australians. The first group consists of the privileged Anglo-Saxon folk who regard being ‘Australian’ as something in respect of which they have a superior claim. The rest are the supplicant subordinated non-white folk. It is the ‘whiteness’ of the ignorance of the former group, sitting at the top of an alleged Australian racial power hierarchy, which precludes them from telling people what they should and should not find racist. The link to this contribution has been conspicuously displayed on the Age since it first appeared in print on 27 March 2014. It might be thought that, to date, it is the standout candidate for the award of unintended irony in the S18C controversy. Yet there has to be space for statements such as these (and for that matter, the denigration of the Irish by the AHRC) if free speech is to have any real meaning. These statements do at least stand in striking contrast to the speech-stultifying mush being preached in the name of ‘harmony’, ‘inclusion’, ‘identity’, ‘respect’, ‘dignity’, ‘civility’ and all their soothing synonyms.

Those supporting the repeal of S18C are having to withstand sustained heckling, including from what passes for the Australian left. The attorney general, they say, will abandon his proposed amendment or be rolled in his party room. In contrast, the most powerful case against the neo-puritan whingeing that propels hate-speech censorship has come from a small minority of outspoken indigenous Australians. ‘People have a right to decide for themselves how they feel about the idea of “race” and racism’, writes Kerryn Pholi, an Aborigine and former social worker.  ‘In order to do that, they need to be free to exchange ideas about these matters, and this includes the freedom to say whatever they like — however ugly — about people like me.’ Now, that’s diversity.

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