Friday, August 08, 2014

Immigration officer warns on risk to national security

An Immigration Department manager has warned agency chiefs in a confidential memo that the collapse of the department's investigations arm has led to the spread of migration fraud and increased the risk to national security.

An internal briefing document written in early 2013 by immigration official Wayne Sievers and addressed to immigration secretary Martin Bowles says investigations teams in several state offices were "unviable".

The still serving official's report, obtained by Fairfax Media, calls for an independent inquiry into the decline of the risk, fraud and integrity division of the department and outlines the "very real concerns held by present and former staff".

Mr Sievers' concerns are separately detailed in several other confidential departmental files written by other immigration officials and obtained by Fairfax Media.

Mr Sievers, who for seven years was assistant director of the department's national investigations services unit has also claimed department executives are more concerned with keeping its deficiencies secret than acting on fraud.

"The main investigation office in Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra are being stripped of staff and resources," he said. "They are approaching the point of being non-viable.

"Meaningful investigation and prosecution activity has effectively ceased [in the Melbourne office]. I see no reason to doubt the situation is different in any other office," he said.


Labor’s chaotic, costly and disastrous broadband path

IN his audit, Bill Scales has skewered Labor’s $43 billion infrastructure vanity project and its serial policy follies in trying to bed down its signature National Broadband Network.

During its six years in office, Labor racked up a miserable public policy record, setting new lows in Canberra for governance, credulity, value for taxpayers, cabinet processes and behavioural standards. It churned through ideas as quickly and wastefully as it burned its leaders. We saw an impregnable border regime dismantled, leading to the arrival of more than 50,000 asylum-seekers and at least 1200 deaths at sea. There was the world’s most economically costly carbon tax and a boneheaded mining tax that raised little revenue but was accompanied by $17bn in unfunded bribes to voters. A panicked fiscal stimulus after the global financial crisis was perhaps double what it should have been. The home insulation fiasco and the school halls builders’ bonanza were typical of a government that had not only lost the plot but had lost its mettle.

While no single policy disaster can fully convey Labor’s dysfunction, wrongheadedness and ineptitude, the NBN boondoggle should be the one from which the nation’s officials and lawmakers draw textbook lessons in what not to do with taxpayers’ money. Former communications minister Stephen Conroy should not be maligned for dreaming big — just for all the things he did after getting his one idea in life, derivative as it was. In making his 2007 pitch to defeat John Howard, Kevin Rudd became seduced by the focus group research that suggested Australians wanted something big to show for the mining boom, a nation-building project like the postwar Snowy Mountains hydro scheme. Picking up on the zeitgeist, Labor’s mission became the pipes that carried the internet and promised voters a fibre-to-the-node NBN that would cost them $4.7bn. That plan was flawed. Labor assumed it could tender out the job of upgrading Telstra’s copper network to a third party.

In the sure hands of Mr Rudd and Senator Conroy, and no doubt copious supplies of Post-it notes, napkins and highlighter pens, in April 2009 the vogue-ish, minimalist NBN morphed into a fibre-to-the-premise behemoth, as did the cost. With Telstra out of the picture, Labor was determined to go it alone. Mr Scales, a former head of the Industry Commission, precursor to the Productivity Commission, found that the public policy process for developing what he termed NBN Mark II was “rushed, chaotic and inadequate”. He found there was only perfunctory consideration by cabinet of the nation’s biggest infrastructure project. “There was no business case or any cost-benefit analysis, or independent studies of the policy undertaken, with no clear operating instructions provided to this completely new government business enterprise, within a legislative and regulatory framework still undefined, and without any consultation with the wider community,” the report said. As well, he concluded NBN Co, a start-up, was not fit for the purpose of delivering the high-speed network on time; it was an “impossible assignment”.

That Labor’s policymaking was so haphazard and cavalier will not surprise our readers, given our unerring scrutiny of the NBN. When Fairfax newspapers finally get around to reporting these damning findings, their readers may get a sense that their paid watchers were asleep at the keyboard. To be kind, Labor also was suffering memory loss. It neglected its own miserable history of picking winners — inexcusable for Queenslander and state bureaucrat Mr Rudd and Victoria’s Senator Conroy — and ignored its best tendencies to deregulation. Here was a case where prudence demanded a government be technologically agnostic — yet it chose broadband over wireless. Since the Hawke era, Labor had tried to promote telecommunications competition. Again, it would eventually seek to impose a new monopoly with NBN Co.

The Abbott government is trying to get the project back on time and on budget. Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull made the right call in appointing Ziggy Switkowski to chair NBN Co. Mr Turnbull will also soon consider the cost-benefit analysis and regulation review by Michael Vertigan. It should be a no-brainer, but Mr Scales has recommended that major projects worth more than $1bn be subject to a cost-benefit analysis before being built, with the findings released. He calls for more independent scrutiny of proposed infrastructure when part of a party’s election pitch. The bureaucracy needs to upscale its expertise around large projects. As well, Mr Scales calls on politicians and officials to learn from failed processes. Taking stock, resetting parameters, is what Labor should have done before scaling up its NBN fantasy in 2009. If Labor is to avoid these self-defeating mistakes in the years ahead, it needs to end its broadband denialism and move quickly away from the dismal Conrovian morass. In its darkest days of rage and recklessness, Labor hit many false notes. The NBN debacle is the Rudd-Gillard government’s theme song, with its haunting crescendo of strange beats and wild cries.


Internet history will not be stored: govt

New data retention laws will include the internet sites people visit, the Prime Minister has said. Source: AAP

THE federal government will not require internet companies to store people's web browsing history as part of its new counter-terrorism plans, despite the prime minister suggesting it would.

TONY Abbott created confusion around the suite of measures on Wednesday when he tried to explain what types of customer metadata telecommunications companies would be required to keep for two years.
While it's expected the information about Australians' calls, texts and emails will be included, Mr Abbott suggested web browser history could also be captured.

"It's not what you're doing on the internet, it's the sites you're visiting," he told the Nine Network on Wednesday morning.

"It's not the content, it's just where you've been, so to speak."

But the prime minister's office later clarified his statement, saying browser history was not metadata and government agencies would still need a warrant to access such information.

Defending the data-retention plans, Mr Abbott described metadata as not being the "content of the letter but what's on the envelope".

In relation to mobile phones, metadata includes information such as origin and destination phone numbers, the billing name and address of both parties, time and duration of the correspondence, and the telecommunications tower used.

It does not include the content of the correspondence.

Online metadata covers the user-specific internet identifier code, IP addresses visited and the time, duration and number of visits.

It does not include the content of web browsing.

Mr Abbott said telecommunications companies already kept such information, and the government was simply asking them to continue to do so.

"I have no doubt the civil libertarian brigade will do their best to stop this but my responsibility as prime minister is to keep our country safe," he said.

"All of the expert advice from every single counter-terrorist agency is that this information is absolutely essential if we are to maintain our vigilance against terrorist activity."

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said Labor respected the fact that national security laws needed updating for the modern age.

"But we also have concerns that when you store so much information about so many Australians that this needs to be done very carefully and in a considered way ... so there is no risk that ordinary Australians are being treated as if they are criminals," he said.

Mr Shorten was also concerned that internet service providers might pass the cost of their data storage on to customers.

Attorney-General George Brandis said the electronic signature of websites could be recorded under the new laws, but clicks within a particular website would not.

"When you visit a website, people browse from one thing to the next (within the same site)," he told Sky News.

"That browsing history won't be retained and there won't be any capacity to access that."

However, the metadata being sought by agencies included the electronic addresses of visited websites, which computer accessed them, the time they were accessed and the durations, he said.


Breakthrough in the Australian State of NSW: Government  go-ahead for fracking project

NSW is very fearful of unconventional gas, even though the neighboring State of Queensland is gung ho about it

AGL Energy has moved a step closer to developing a controversial coal-seam gas project in New South Wales after the state government allowed it to conduct fracking activities at four test wells.

The Gloucester project is significant because it could provide the state with 15 per cent of its natural-gas needs and power close to one million homes if it goes lives in 2016 as planned. Energy companies, including AGL, say the state is facing a supply squeeze, as three giant gas-export projects in neighbouring Queensland threaten to deplete domestic reserves when they start up next year.

Proposed developments in NSW, however, are facing stiff opposition from environmentalists and farmers concerned that drilling practices for extracting methane trapped in coal seams could contaminate underground water supplies.

AGL’s decision to invest in the project will partly rest on the results of the four-well pilot project, which will test the quality of the resource. To proceed with the tests, the company had been relying on state government approval for it to carry out hydraulic fracturing, a controversial drilling technique that cracks underground rocks using high-powered bursts of water, sand and chemicals.

“This will not be the only solution to our reliance on gas from interstate, but it is a significant and vital step in the right direction to improve supply for NSW,” state Energy Minister Anthony Roberts said today.

NSW currently provides only 5 per cent of its own natural gas, but this could rise to 20 per cent if the Gloucester project goes ahead, AGL chief executive Michael Fraser said.

None of the Gloucester project’s output would be exported overseas, he said.

NSW has some of the country’s toughest coal-seam gas rules, having banned wells within two kilometres of residential areas, and land containing vineyards and horse studs. The rules, which came into effect in October, forced AGL to write down the value of its proposed Camden and Hunter gas projects.

The Gloucester project is in a more remote area, so it isn’t exposed to the same regulatory impediments.

The project, however, is still likely to face opposition from environmentalists and some farmers and community groups that claim it is still too risky.

Credit Suisse last week said it has only attributed $88 million in value to the project out of a $347.5 million book value, due to delay risks.

The broker said AGL might have to guarantee land values in the areas to win the blessing of farmers.

“A coordinated campaign targeting AGL’s electricity and gas customers could result in customer loss,” it said.

The state government’s tough stance is in stark contrast to neighbouring Queensland, where companies including ConocoPhillips and Total SA are spending more than $60 billion combined to liquefy coal-seam gas for export to Asia.


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