Sunday, March 22, 2015

I am outraged

I was brought up as a Presbyterian and, culturally, I guess I still am one.  I even still read Presbyterian publications at times. So the lily-livered report below from one such publication is deeply disappointing to me.

The report is from the head of the Presbyterian church in Queensland and his report is of a meeting with  local Muslim leaders. So did the meeting express any concern at all about the large-scale and grievous attacks on Christians in Muslim lands? 

Such attacks were not mentioned at all. We read that the meeting was "to express concern about the violence that has been perpetrated against some Muslims simply because they are Muslims". 

And in the press release we find out what the "violence" was: "recent negative sentiments expressed toward Muslims and especially Muslim women".  So rape, torture and death of thousands of Christians fades into insignificance compared with a few harsh words about Muslims! 

I am flabbergasted.  The man quotes the Bible but he is a Pharisee, a hypocrite, an abomination and a "whited sepulchre".

Has he not read: "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me" (Matt. 25:40).  Christ had great concern for every one of his followers but the Rt. Rev. Phil Case apparently does not.

He was only one of the church leaders at the meeting but he voices no disquiet about its reprehensible proceedings.

Heads of Churches meeting with members of Queensland Islamic council

By Rt. Rev. Phil Case (Moderator of the Presbyterian church in Queensland)

I attended the Heads of Churches meeting on the 20th October. We met with the Brisbane leaders of the Islamic community.

Some might ask why we would meet with them when our faiths are so different. This was not a meeting about the content of our respective faiths, but a meeting to express concern about the violence that has been perpetrated against some Muslims simply because they are Muslims. It was a meeting to support the Freedom of Religion we enjoy in Australia.

I think it was Evelyn Beatrice Hall biographer of Voltaire who wrote “I disapprove of what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”

If we do not speak out against these actions pertaining to people because of their religion, how can we speak out when we are acted against because of our Christian faith? We do not share beliefs with the Islamic Community, but we do share our humanity with them. Our Lord has commanded us to love our neighbour, and to love our enemies.

Speaking out in defence of their right to live in peace as law abiding citizens is doing just this. Aggression toward people arises from fear; fear of that which is different, fear of that which we do not know and understand.

It would be good if we as Christians could take the time to get to know our Islamic neighbours and show them love at the appropriate level. How can we expect them to listen to us if we will not listen to them and take the time to get to know them?

Not only is this an opportunity to live out the commands of our Lord to love our neighbour, but it is an opportunity to share the Gospel with people who desperately need it. God has brought these people to our shores, but the tragedy is that most of these people have no more contact with Christians than they would if they still lived in their Islamic homeland.

They hear no more of the Gospel and know no more of Christianity than those in countries where Christians are not free to share the Gospel. In 1 Peter 3:15-16 we read " your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience..."

If Christ is Lord, we are to be prepared to give an answer to those who ask about our faith and hope. But no one is going to ask about our hope if we never bother to meet and get to know anyone.

Note also, that we are to do it with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience. We are always to act with care and respect for those we speak to. It is interesting that this is Peter’s command to those who may be afraid of persecution (see verse 14).

We are not to be afraid. We are not to fear anything because our Lord is in control. Let us take the opportunity while it is day to do good to all men and to share the Gospel.

I encourage all Christians to learn not just about the beliefs of Islam, but also to get to know some people who practise Islam. Our common humanity ensures we have much in common with them.

Many of their concerns are our concerns. They are having open days at mosques and are open to invitations to events that we might hold at our churches. This is a golden opportunity to build peace and share the Gospel as the Lord permits.

It will take time and effort to build relationships in which questions can be asked and answered, but let’s not miss out.

Media Release:

Heads of Churches meeting with members of Queensland Islamic Council

by Rt Rev Phil Case

On Monday 20 October, the Heads of Christian Churches met with members of the Islamic Council of Queensland to consider ways of strengthening relations between the Christian and Islamic communities in the State that promote respect and harmony.

The meeting was precipitated by the concern over the recent negative sentiments expressed toward Muslims and especially Muslim women.

The meeting abhorred such actions, and called upon all Queenslanders to respect the right of all Australians to enjoy Freedom of Religion, and seeks to promote ways in which understanding and tolerance between people of different faiths can be increased.

Churches represented included the Anglican, Roman Catholic, Uniting, Congregational Federation of Australian and New Zealand, Australian Christian Churches, Presbyterian Church of Queensland and the Wesleyan Methodist Church of Australia.

As well as members of the Queensland Islamic Council there were also representatives of the Council of Imams, Crescents of Brisbane and AMARAH in attendance.

Topics discussed included supporting freedom of religious practices and ideas within the Australian community; showing dignity to all people regardless of their beliefs and ways of life; and speaking with a united voice to government and politicians on topics of mutual concern.

As well it was agreed to support initiatives such as the open mosque days, organising forums to educate the wider community about Islam


Santos stunned by NSW Labor threat to $2b coal seam gas project

Santos has been left stunned by a pledge by NSW Opposition Leader Luke Foley to ban coal seam gas from the Pilliga region if Labor wins government, a move that has undermined the whole future of its proposed $2 billion Narrabri project.

While a Labor win in the March 28 election is seen as unlikely, the pledge has removed bipartisan support for the Narrabri venture, without which Santos and its partners would be reluctant to commit the capital required to develop the controversial project, which could supply up to half of the state's gas needs.

"It is disappointing that the Labor party has decided to play politics with a very important product for the state long term," said James Baulderstone, Santos's vice-president, eastern Australia.

He accused NSW Labor of "putting out policies on the run" without thinking through the consequences. He said he expected "common sense to prevail" after the election and that the policy would be rethought.

Business worried about shortages

But Mr Foley's statement has caused shock waves throughout business in NSW, whch is worried about potential shortages of gas for manufacturing, and more broadly about heightened sovereign risk which will deter investment. Mr Foley said a Labor government in NSW would also impose a statewide moratorium on CSG activity.

NSW Business Chamber chief executive Stephen Cartwright pointed to gas supply shortages that risked the closure of manufacturing businesses, prompting job losses in western Sydney and regional NSW.

"Labor has no plan to ensure that gas users can access the gas they need at competitive prices," Mr Cartwright said, pointing to "concerns about sovereign risk, affecting the overall investment climate in New South Wales".

A NSW Labor government would not cancel any exploration or assessment licences but would not permit exploration licences in the Pilliga forest to convert into production licences, Mr Foley said late on Thursday. Licences would not be renewed when they expire and no compensation would be offered.

Santos's Narrabri project has been repeatedly delayed by changing state regulations amid huge community concern about the impact of the industry on water and land resources. The company has already invested about $1.2 billion in its NSW CSG business, including the takeover of explorer Eastern Star Gas in 2011.

The Pilliga venture and AGL Energy's proposed Gloucester project, which has already secured state environmental approval, were the only two in the state to previously have broad political support across both main parties.

But the Labor stance has removed that.

"This is certainly not a positive development for Santos," said Canaccord energy analyst Johan Hedstrom. "I think it's going to be very hard to make much progress for Santos or anybody else in New South Wales for the next few years. When we get gas prices double what we are paying today, maybe there's going to be a different tune from the electorate."

AGL Energy said it would continue to work with the community and government "so we can secure gas safely to supply to our customers", and didn't comment on Labor's proposed moratorium.

Santos NSW manager Peter Mitchley noted that the NSW Chief Scientist, Mary O'Kane, had reviewed the CSG industry and concluded that the industry carried no more risk than any other extractive industry. He pointed out that the Narrabri project wouldn't affect water recharge in the Great Artesian Basin.

"We are finalising the environmental impact statement and I wish people would wait until they see the EIS and judge the project on that rather than jumping to conclusions before they even know what we are trying to do," Mr Mitchley said.

Santos partners

The Labor stance is expected to make it even more difficult for Santos to find another partner for the Pilliga project. It has been in talks with potential investors that might take a 30 per cent stake in the venture, to reduce its own holding to about 50 per cent. Existing 20 per cent partner, EnergyAustralia, has already written down its stake in the venture by $248 million to zero, while Santos last month wrote its stake down by $808 million before tax.

"Partners at the moment globally are looking at investing their money where there is the least risk," Mr Baulderstone said.

"They will expect that Australia and Australian governments will continue to be sensible and continue to be pragmatic about the need to balance economic development with the environment. I am sure that once this election is over common sense will prevail and we'll have the normal type of discussions both with government and with partners."

NSW Labor's opposition to CSG was soundly criticised last week by former federal Labor resources minister Martin Ferguson, who said the party was not acting in the best long-term interests of the very people it was supposed to be serving.

But Australian Workers' Union national secretary Scott McDine said he didn't believe that getting more coal seam gas out of the ground in NSW would help solve the gas problem in the eastern states, and reiterated the AWU's call for a domestic gas reservation scheme.

"CSG is not going to solve the price issue," Mr Mc Dine said on Friday. "I am very keen on there being jobs, absolutely, but if people think that further gas extraction will lead to lower prices they are wrong."

Mr Foley said CSG posed "unacceptable" risks to underground water storages in the Pilliga, a claim rejected by Mr Baulderstone.


Afghanistan veterans receive hero's welcome in Brisbane parade

More than 3000 veterans of Australia's military campaign in Afghanistan were given a hero's welcome in Brisbane on Saturday morning.

The 14-year military operation resulted in the deaths of 41 ADF members, with hundreds more suffering injuries, both physical and psychological.

The scorn their predecessors who served in Vietnam faced upon their return was nowhere to be seen.

Instead, they were greeted with waving Australian flags and signs expressing a nation's gratitude.

In one of  a series of such parades held across Australia, the Operation Slipper veterans from all Australia's defence forces marched though the CBD streets under an overcast sky.

A police spokesman said more than 5000 people lined the streets to watch the returned servicemen and women – and a sheep – march through the city.

A planned flyover of three RAAF C-17 Globemasters had to be cancelled for operational reasons, believed to be the ongoing aid effort to cyclone-ravaged Vanuatu.

However, two Black Hawk helicopters did provide some aerial support for the troops on the ground.

Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk attended, along with Governor Paul de Jersey, Brisbane Lord Mayor Graham Quirk and federal Attorney-General George Brandis

"I especially want to acknowledge the families with us today, who pay the ultimate sacrifice with the loss of a loved one, killed in action during Operation Slipper," Ms Palaszczuk said.

Parades were held in every capital city, as well as Townsville, across Australia on Saturday morning.

Operation Slipper began in October 2001 and formally ended on December 31 last year.


Building Industry Backs Sensible Reforms To 457 Visa Program
The Government’s proposed reforms of the 457 visa system will support a more productive building and construction industry and more jobs for young Australians.

“Master Builders welcomes the Government’s positive approach in responding to the Independent Review of the Integrity of the 457 Subclass Program, particularly in proposed reforms to strengthen and protect the integrity of the 457 visa program,” Wilhelm Harnisch CEO of Master Builders Australia said.

“The recommendations put forward by the Assistant Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Michaelia Cash, show that the Government has listened to the building industry’s call for greater flexibility in the system while strengthening its integrity,” he said.

“Minister Cash’s response will cut red tape for builders who do the right thing while ensuring those who don’t, facing tougher sanctions,” Wilhelm Harnisch said.

“Contrary to union claims, the building industry is committed to providing jobs for Australians first. The skills of foreign workers are called on to meet skills deficits on projects when local workers are not available,” he said.

“Minister Cash’s proposed training fund will reduce future reliance on overseas workers by supporting building industry employers to train more young Australians and upskill existing workers,” Wilhelm Harnisch said.

“Master Builders looks forward to working closely with the Government to ensure the industry is an important driver of the training delivery model under the new training fund to ensure positive outcomes are achieved and more job ready young people can readily embark on rewarding careers in building and construction,” he said.

“The Minister’s proposal that the fund should support builders to train more young people in regional and Indigenous communities will help fight youth unemployment and support the Government’s efforts to close the gap for Indigenous Australians,” Wilhelm Harnisch said.

“Master Builders also welcomes the Government’s recommended move to more flexible labour agreements. Reducing the timeframe from 2 years to 3 months through the setting of service agreement by the Department is supported as is the more flexible approach in English language testing. The proposed averaging approach is a solid first step in addressing the industry’s concerns,” he said.

“Minister Cash’s 457 visa reforms will assist the building industry to meet its cyclical skills shortages while providing Australian young people with more rewarding career opportunities in a key growth industry,” Wilhelm Harnisch said.

Press release

Welfare addiction keeps Australia from reforming its finances

AUSTRALIAN historian John Hirst recalls that when he met his future father-in-law, Bernard, in the early 1960s, the 50-something boasted he had saved and arranged his financial affairs so as not to receive the age pension.

“It used to be a matter of shame for people to claim public benefits,” Hirst tells Inquirer. “Now I read in The (Australian)Financial Review articles laying out in detail how to obtain a part-age pension. It’s shameless.”

When Bernard was born in 1910, only one-third of Australians over 65 received the age pension, then only one year old. Today 80 per cent receive it, despite unprecedented growth in living standards and real average incomes in the intervening years.

This growing army of pensioners is just part of a welfare ­explosion that risks setting Australia’s public finances on the road to fiscal disaster; it also risks ­sapping political parties’ will to resist the journey with any sense of ­commitment.

The proliferation of different payments — and their reach into Australian households — has fostered a pervasive sense of entitlement that has undermined once powerful arguments in favour of self-reliance. It has created a powerful political constituency for public spending beyond the traditional public service that parliament has proved unable to resist.

In 1930, historian Keith Hancock famously wrote that Australian democracy “looked upon the state as a vast public utility”. It seems an odd comment from the vantage point of the early 21st century; government and welfare in Hancock’s era were remote and meagre.

The fledgling commonwealth, only recently established in Canberra, levied taxes equivalent to 5 per cent of national income in the late 1920s, a small fraction of the 23 per cent levied almost a century later. Apart from the long-­established age pension, the 72 payments and supplements that today make up the federal government’s welfare cat­alogue lay many decades in the future.

Areas that dominated government spending in Hancock’s day — defence, justice, basic public infrastructure — have shrivelled as the federal welfare bill has swollen to about $150 billion ($400 million a day) this year, more than six times the defence budget.

He surely couldn’t have imagined the prescience of his remark. Today, Google-search “what payments can I get” and the first link that appears is the Department of Human Services’ Payment Finder site. Type some basic details and discover immediately the array of payments for which you may be eligible. A 35-year-old working full time with healthy children aged eight to 15 is eligible for nine. If a relative has recently died, it jumps to 13.

It is not only older Australians whose dependence on welfare has ballooned. The share of the working age (15-64) population receiving disability, unemployment or parenting payments has exploded from 2 per cent in 1969 to 12 per cent in 2013. Including the over-65s, about a quarter of the population over 15 receives cash income-support payments.

Snowballing support for families with children has further boosted numbers. The share of families receiving income-support payments has surged from 10 per cent in the mid-60s to more than 40 per cent today. A crucial change came in 1976 when the Fraser government substituted cash payments for tax deductions per child, severing the link between support and work.

All up, conservatively about 60 per cent of Australia’s nine million-odd households receive some sort of federal government cash handout, according to various surveys. Peter Whiteford, a social security specialist at the Australian National University, points to evidence suggesting about two-thirds of Australian households received income support within a nine-year period. “I had to ring up and check when I first read that,” he says.

This welfare web has serious implications for the outcome of elections. The share of households considered net taxpayers — those whose income tax payments outweigh what they receive in social security — is poised to drop below 50 per cent. According to the National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling, this share has fallen from 56 per cent to 51 per cent across the decade to last year. That is, almost half of all households get back more from the government in welfare payments than they give up in income tax.

It is little wonder most voters have no appetite for welfare reform, or at least any reform that may mean lower benefits.

The drop in net taxpayers is explained mainly by a fall in the share of over-65s (a rapidly growing group) who pay net tax from 13 per cent to 8 per cent. “The removal of superannuation taxation for those aged over 60 and the generous nature of the senior Australians tax offset means that older Australians typically pay no or very little tax,” NATSEM researcher Ben Phillips says.

Compulsory voting compels Australia’s politicians to focus particularly on the interests of the “median voter”. They reason their core supporters will vote for them anyway, so the interests of politically uninterested, younger voters, typically with children, become paramount.

It may seem reassuring that the share of working-age couples with children who are net contributors is still 75 per cent (down from 80 per cent in 2004), but their net contributions would be dwarfed by other government benefits received in kind.

Perhaps the best evidence for the electorate’s aversion to any weaning off the welfare teat — in the face of an ominous fiscal outlook — is the failure of the Abbott government’s first budget. Apart from a cut to foreign aid and a few tweaks here and there, none of the proposed big structural savings in social security, health or education has been passed.

Tony Abbott is able to claim the government’s debt burden is no longer hurtling towards 120 per cent of gross domestic product only because the rate of growth of payments to the states for schools and hospitals is assumed to slow dramatically after 2017, a move Labor trenchantly opposes.

Now a wounded Coalition ­government appears to be giving up, and promises a “dull and routine” second budget attempt in six weeks. The broader pace of reform has ground to a halt, too, despite an expanding library of sensible ­proposals in tax, childcare, welfare, federation, banking and competition.

Hirst is perplexed why politicians aren’t making greater use of grandfathering to prise unneces­sary payments and concessions off Australians. “They could blow the whistle on many of these things without upsetting the current beneficiaries,” he says.

John Daley, head of the Grattan Institute, concedes growth in the scope of welfare has made reform more difficult but puts more of the blame on the ineptitude of the political class. “Of course it’s much harder to take something away from someone than simply to not give it out in the first place. But we are seeing policies go live without sufficient analysis, leading to poor design, and social media ensures the flaws are found and broadcast very quickly,” he says, pointing to the unravelling of the Coalition’s higher education reforms and GP co-payments.

It is becoming conventional wisdom to point to Australia’s political paralysis. The skill or lack thereof of our political leaders is typically blamed. But deep-seated structural changes in society, including the growing share of the population with a vested interest in no cuts to government spending, must also figure.

“Obviously when a larger share of the population is on welfare the constituency for spending will be larger, and it will be harder to cut it,” says Peter Saunders, a senior fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies. “But the shift in mentality is the more damaging — government becomes a dispensing machine and elections never a battle over ideas or principles but rather simply over who is going to get what.”

Demographer Hugh Mackay points out that Australia, like other advanced countries, has become more fragmented and less cohesive, making political leadership inherently more difficult.

“We’ve been ethnically and culturally diverse for a long time, but there are other factors now fragmenting us, such as divorce, population mobility (we move house on average once every six years), smaller households (the single-person household is now the largest and fastest growing category) — and the rise of the two-income household means less time for nurturing local communities,” he says.

“The explosion of information technology and especially social media has created the illusion of greater connectedness but it has made it easier than ever for us to stay apart from each other.”

This is a trend Mackay expands on in his latest book, The Art of ­Belonging.

Social media also has made trimming welfare harder. The technology has slashed the price of personal sanctimony, making it far easier to broadcast one’s righteousness and concern for others to many thousands.

Once, one would have to go to the trouble of writing a grammatically correct letter to the editor. Facebook and Twitter have given life to countless “online campaigns” driven by campaigners not especially informed about the underlying policy issue.

“None of this makes us ungovernable, but it does make us less predictable, less trusting,” Mackay concludes.

Hirst is also relatively optimistic. “In a genuine crisis we would see one of the major parties win control of both houses of parliament again,” he says. “But the seemingly entrenched demand that politicians must signal all tax increases and all funding cuts before they are elected has raised the standard to a ridiculous level.”

John Maynard Keynes might have changed his mind when the facts changed, but our politicians are no longer afforded this luxury. Julia Gillard imposed a carbon tax. Abbott trimmed the ABC’s budget. John Howard was dogged relentlessly during his 1998 GST campaign for a “never, ever” remark he had made in 1995.

This heightened focus on promises perhaps stems from the greater share of the population that stands to be affected by the variety of levers a governing party may choose to pull.

The point is the policy outcomes we are observing are a result of the political system that we have chosen, and in particular the voting franchise. It is too simplistic to blame individuals or political parties. Politicians respond rationally to the incentive structure laid before them. The incentive is to win favour with most voters. Under Australia’s compulsory voting regime, that means the “median voter” in particular. As a much larger share of the voting public contributes little, if anything, to the state and extracts significant benefits from it, policy and promises are fashioned ­accordingly.

Yet all adults have the same right to determine the allocation of taxpayers’ funds. Regardless of whether this is right or wrong, it certainly has an effect on political outcomes and in particular the current parliament’s inability to curb spending. The constituency for more spending would be empowered further if the Greens succeeded in extending the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds.

The impact of compulsory voting on policy outcomes is little discussed, but it must be huge. Today a sacrosanct tenet of Australian political life, it was smuggled through federal parliament on the back of a private member’s bill during the Bruce government in 1924. Far from an enlightened response to voter apathy, it was ­inspired by a conservative government in Queensland that decided in 1915 to compel the electorate to vote on the assumption its supporters were lazier than those of its Labor opponents.

“It is demeaning of citizenship; the state shouldn’t be forcing people to vote if they have no interest,” Hirst says. One could also object on pragmatic grounds: having lots of uninterested and uninformed people voting forces politicians to dumb down their arguments. Saunders argues most people vote from “emotional wellsprings” rather than rational analysis, referring to a 2011 survey in Britain that showed only 14 per cent of people understood the relationship between the deficit and the public debt.

The unrelenting growth of welfare and the resulting political gridlock would not surprise 19th-century democrats. British political economist John Stuart Mill — an ardent advocate for extending the vote and ending slavery, and a champion of women’s rights and free speech — thought voting should be restricted to taxpayers.

“The assembly which votes the taxes, either general or local, should be elected exclusively by those who pay something towards the taxes imposed,” he cautioned in 1861, when voters in Britain still had to meet property and income tests. “Those who pay no taxes, disposing by their votes of other people’s money, have every ­motive to be lavish and none to economise.”

Mill’s progressive, liberal argument would be howled down today as “right-wing” extremism. His other restriction might be more appealing — that voters should demonstrate basic numeracy and literacy before they can vote. “You can’t drive on the roads without passing a basic competence test,” says Saunders, suggesting governance of a country may be equally important.

But today’s politicians must work within the system that exists. Without the abolition of compulsory voting or the introduction of a modest competency test for voters, they must continue to appeal to the median voter. And as more and more households find themselves net beneficiaries of government payments, the chances of convincing the median voter of the need for hard but necessary budget choices grow dimmer.


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