Monday, January 03, 2011

Cast adrift from reality, the slick spruikers of 'our' shame

The water in Sydney Harbour over the New Year weekend was clear, the sky was bright blue and endless, and the new fashion on the beach was bikini-clad women wearing pork-pie hats. A great look. There can be no city in the world where so many people, millions, have easy access to so much natural beauty and a comfortable life. Nowhere else on this scale.

Millions of people would want to come here if they could. I don't blame them. There are roughly 60 million refugees or displaced people in the world, and we would like to scoop them all up and save them. But in the real world it can take a powerful amount of work to even save one's own children from harm. If Australia decided, by an act of democratic will, to become the most generous nation in history, and open its borders to all who sought a better life here, in time this would have dire consequences for the society that has evolved here, and the environment we have already degraded so much.

In this context, I would like to hand out medals for the most dubious contributions to Australian public life in 2010. I don't question the sincerity or good intentions of those I am about to disabuse, I question their grasp on reality.

The gold medal goes to Graeme Innes, the Human Right Commission's disability discrimination commissioner and race discrimination commissioner, who has spent his entire 33-year career as a human rights lawyer. In August, Innes flew to Geneva, at taxpayers' expense, to address the committee of the United Nations International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD).

Innes managed to cram his speech with six major points that I regard as self-serving or untrue or both:

(1) He said there was "a strong need for a domestic implementation mechanism for CERD in Australia".

(2) He claimed, "We have a clear sense of what the Australian community wanted … an enshrined bill of rights …".

(3) He called for changes to the Australian constitution to give greater effect to anti-racism laws.

(4) He wants "a national multicultural policy".

(5) He complained that there was "no national data on the prevalence of migrants as victims of crime".

(6) He called for a "federal law to criminalise race hate".

This is a proscriptive paradise for human rights lawyers, as if Australia were not already excessively regulated and litigious and footing the bill for a human rights industry scrambling for clients and relevance.

The silver medal goes to another lawyer, a District Court judge, Stephen Norrish, who believes Aboriginal criminals should have prison terms of less than 12 months automatically suspended or converted to community service. He wants culture and disadvantage to be considered in mitigation during sentencing. He wants special "Koori courts". "Unless acts of affirmative action are formally recognised," he said, "not only will the disproportionate number of Aboriginal people in the criminal justice system continue, but it will increase, to this nation's greater shame."

What about some collective remorse and self-criticism from the Aboriginal community? What about the gangs of young Aboriginal men who roam the streets of Sydney and country towns stealing and belting white kids, a problem my extended family has experienced first-hand multiple times? What about an apology from the Aboriginal people (a concept which itself is a white fiction) for the endemic child abuse inside Aboriginal families and communities?

I don't believe most Australians feel "shame" that Aborigines are 15-times over-represented in the criminal justice system. I believe they feel anger, as the victims of crime. Australians are sick of the chasm between rhetoric and reality, and the idea that the only acceptable public narratives for Aboriginal people are that of victim or artist or noble custodian. The percentage of incarcerated Aboriginals would be even higher if so many were not given a free pass by the justice system, which in turn has led to a self-perpetuating culture of violence.

The human rights industry, and lawyers from the High Court down, have created a system of moral and legal apartheid in this country in which Aboriginal communities are guaranteed to fail. And they want more of the same failed policies.

Judge Norrish does not treat Aborigines as human beings. Instead they are to be treated as something outside Australian law and culture, as victims, mendicants, piccaninnies, avatars of white guilt, incapable of knowing right from wrong. His comments are profoundly insulting to the majority of Aboriginal and part-Aboriginal people who function well within the norms of society.

At least he does not extend his "shame", like Commissioner Innes, who returned to Australia and complained about the "race to the bottom" by the major political parties in their policies for the handling of illegal boat arrivals. This is a deeply contemptuous phrase. It strips all principle from the debate for those who support strong border protection. It supports the false premise that the relatively small number of people who arrive by illegal boats makes this a minor matter than can be dealt with by compassion, not hysteria, exaggeration or xenophobia.

But this argument is about principle. Not numbers. The principle applies whether there are two boats or two hundred. The heart of the current debacle is a failure of law, an absence of legal certainty. If an election were to be fought today over whether those who arrive by illegal means, or without proper papers, should be guaranteed of failure, Julia Gillard and her government would be gone.


A humane policy would be one that stopped the boats coming

ALL Australians very much lament the tragic loss of life that occurred on December 15, 2010, just off Christmas Island. Latest reports are that 48 people have died, and that the death toll could rise.

We owe it to the heroic efforts of our navy and Customs officers, who risked their own lives in the heavy seas, that more did not perish. Parents have lost children; children have lost parents. I express my deepest sympathy to the families of those killed and injured. Many others seeking to enter Australia by boat die far out to sea, out of sight.

Sadly, the latest tragedy was a realisation of our worst fears and in all likelihood will be repeated if Labor's policies do not change.

The Coalition had a humane policy that stopped the boats from taking the dangerous journeys that horrifically killed so many men, women and children just off Christmas Island. Our policy was targeted at making it tougher for people-smugglers to prey on desperate asylum-seekers. While both sides of politics recognise that co-operation with our regional neighbours and international partners is necessary, it can never be a one-way street.

While we are looking at what Indonesia may be able to do to assist, it is important to remember that they see this outcome as an own goal by Australia. Indonesian spokesmen have repeatedly referred to the need for Australia to "take the sugar off the table".

What is the sugar? It is the incentives that Australian policies give to people to seek to access Australia through Indonesia. Indonesia is just as anxious as us that this should stop.

The Howard government's so-called Pacific solution, excision of islands from the migration zone, returning boats in safety and temporary protection visas stopped the boats. We recognised that a suite of measures was necessary to give people-smugglers the message that Australia was not open for their business.

The issue of temporary protection visas rather than permanent visas meant that when conditions in source countries improved, those who could go back without fear of persecution did so, rather than stay in Australia indefinitely. Temporary protection visas are in accord with Australia's obligations under international humanitarian law.

The abolition of temporary protection visas helps people-smugglers sell Australia to prospective asylum-seekers as a place you can migrate to permanently rather than temporarily.

People-smugglers knew that when the Labor government abandoned the Pacific solution and temporary protection visas, this meant they once again had a product to sell and their cruel trade recommenced. The Australian ("Ruddock slams asylum policy") reported on November 24, 2010, that Department of Immigration and Citizenship officials warned then immigration minister Chris Evans on February 25, 2008, to "expect an upswing in boat arrivals after the Nauru detention centre was abandoned that month".

Also, while mandatory detention has ostensibly been maintained, there has certainly been a softening and the government markets its new regime as more humane, of shorter duration and less punitive. Given that more than 700 children remain detained, figures far higher than seen during the Howard government years, it is hard to see how Labor's policies have been more humane.

Nevertheless it has created an impression in the region that we are a softer touch for asylum-seekers.

Labor has failed to stop the boats. The Coalition government stopped the boats. This is not a slogan but an outcome of policy. When the Labor government came to power in November 2007, there had been an average of three boats a year under the Howard government's last six years in office and only four illegal boat arrivals in detention. There are now on average three boats a week under Labor and more than 6500 illegal boat arrivals in detention.

When we look at the growing protests, riots, self-harm, hunger strikes and breakouts in a detention network that is expanded well beyond its capacity, we can see that Labor's policies on boatpeople have simply failed.

Australia has a long and proud record of resettling refugees and those in need of protection.This is something that the Coalition wants to continue. During the election we committed to increasing our intake through the UN High Commissioner for Refugees by 1500 places to 7500 and also to introduce a private sponsorship program to bring in potentially another 1500 UNHCR-mandated refugees.

But at the same time we have the right and responsibility to enact laws that protect our borders and are consistent with our international obligations to protect refugees. This is a delicate balance that the Howard government was able to achieve. It achieved this by recognising that a package of measures was necessary, and that to remove any one of those measures put at risk the very effectiveness of the package.

The Coalition remains serious about stopping the boats. Offshore entry persons, those who arrive by boat, should be treated differently to discourage boat arrivals. We must put a stop to the tragedies from these awfully dangerous sea journeys.


Refusal to release cabinet files casts NSW as 'state of secrecy'

THE state government is refusing to release cabinet documents despite passing a 10-year publication embargo because they reveal personal opinions of ministers at the time.

The refusal raises questions about the Keneally government's commitment to its new freedom-of-information regime and the promise to make publicly available large amounts of previously secret information.

Under the Government Information (Public Access) Act, cabinet documents cease to be exempt from public requests for access if 10 years have passed since the calendar year in which the papers were written.

In May the Premier, Kristina Keneally, directed all ministers and heads of department to "comply with both the letter and the spirit" of the new legislation, which replaced the complex and widely criticised Freedom of Information Act.

However, the Department of Premier and Cabinet has refused for almost 12 months to grant the Herald access to documents produced in 1999 by the cabinet relating to the Olympics.

The department's general counsel, Paul Miller, said he had determined that there is "an overriding public interest against disclosure" because the documents reveal the "views and positions of individual ministers in cabinet".

Mr Miller said releasing the minutes could prejudice the concept of collective ministerial responsibility, which holds that all ministers must publicly support the decisions taken in cabinet, even if they do not agree with them.

It is argued that ministers will be able to speak more freely during cabinet deliberations if they know the details will not be released in 10 years.

The Greens MP John Kaye said the decision "casts NSW back into the state of secrecy that the new public information act was supposed to overcome".

"The excuse is entirely feeble as it could be applied to almost any decision being made by cabinet and in effect creates an embargo in perpetuity on all documents," he said.

Mr Miller also cited the personal, business and financial information contained in the minutes as reason for refusal, but there was no mention of national security concerns.

Furthermore, the special exemption for Olympics-related documents in the old FOI legislation has not been carried over in the new law.

A spokeswoman said the Premier "has no role in overturning any decision to withhold information or in fact any role in determining what information to release".

The spokeswoman said a recommendation by the NSW Ombudsman in February 2009 that the Premier identify cabinet material which can be proactively released on a regular basis "will be considered by cabinet in due course".

The Herald has attempted to see the minutes prepared by the minister for the Olympics, Michael Knight, for consideration of the full cabinet or the standing committee on the Olympics, as well as the submissions to cabinet by the Olympic Co-ordination Authority.

The department allowed the Herald to view a selection of cabinet decisions, which documented the consensus view of cabinet, however one document, on the project agreement for a hotel at Homebush Bay, could not be found.


We will in future need that floodwater that we are now wasting

Barnaby Joyce

Water, water, everywhere, and treated you could drink it, or untreated use it for agriculture or drive turbines for power. From my front window I have twice in the last year seen the Balonne River in flood, surging to some 330,000 megalitres a day. About 500,000 megalitres fills Sydney Harbour.

Floods are flowing into houses when they should be flowing into weirs and dams for later, more beneficial use. In a couple of years there will be another drought and the response will be to blame everything, in the belief that the world has changed permanently and we poor souls are helpless and hopeless. The reality is that we were imprudent and did not do the hard work to build the appropriate infrastructure to mitigate against drought and reduce flood damage.

Julia Gillard's initial response to the floods was to send $1 million for relief. She spent in excess of 16,000 times as much to build school halls. Houses to live in and dams for our future should take precedence.

Our water policy must have the foresight to build infrastructure to store and move water. Australia is only too happy to build the infrastructure to take water out of the Murray-Darling Basin in order to send it to Melbourne, Adelaide and Broken Hill. How about instead we start building infrastructure to put water into the basin, or at least to store the part that does the damage to people's houses and lives?

The Coalition's water policy will come in four major parts, on top of the $10 billion the Howard government provided for the upgrade of infrastructure and water purchases to deal with over-allocation in the Murray-Darling Basin.

First, it will allocate $500 million in seed capital. This will go to areas as diverse as water infrastructure and research into plant genetics, with the aim of delivering or storing more water without reducing the present average volume at the mouth of the Murray. In its natural condition, drought leads to dry sand at the bottom of the river and not many fish breathe air, so the environment might be pristine but barren. During the middle of the last drought, water was still on the river floor due to the weirs and dams upstream.

Second, a key part of the Coalition policy is the Infrastructure Partnership Scheme. This is based partially on the municipal bonds system in the US, and allows for a 10 per cent reduction on the relevant tax paid on profits in these ventures.

If a superannuation fund built a dam and sold the water to industry, homes and farms, then these profits would be taxed only 5 per cent. Such a dam would not necessarily have to be built in the Murray-Darling Basin. If it has the potential to be a nation-building project, it could be built anywhere. There is about $1.4 trillion in superannuation savings; water infrastructure may well attract some of these dollars, thus reinvesting our savings in our nation.

Third, I recently made an announcement on the Murrumbidgee near Griffith that the Coalition would ask a panel of engineers to determine the most appropriate and cost-effective sites to construct dams. These decisions will be based not on political considerations but solely on an engineering basis. We know full well that a decision is never easy when dealing with water.

Lastly, both the Coalition and Labor have promised that the Murray-Darling Basin Plan would deliver a bottom-line outcome of social, economic and environmental equivalence. However, it appears that the Water Act is drafted in such a way that it precludes this. For example, section 44 (5) of the act prevents the minister from asking for changes to give greater protection to regional economies in the basin.

That there are problems in the Water Act is not just my view, but the view of George Williams of the faculty of law at the University of NSW, the economist and ex-University of Melbourne professor Judith Sloan, and the Sydney barrister Josephine Kelly. Most importantly, the former head of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, Mike Taylor, is said to have given up his job because of this dilemma.

There must not be any sacred cow legislation; if the Water Act has unforeseen detrimental effects, then we must amend the act. It would not be the first act since Federation to be amended.

I asked for an investigation into ambiguities in the Water Act but Labor, the Greens and an independent voted against it. I sent a letter to Tony Windsor to see if his committee would investigate it, and have had no reply.

Fresh water is the source of renewable wealth, affordable food, green lawns and clean cars. Let us make water as accessible and affordable as possible, and move on from the present naive water policy of building nothing new, shutting down towns or taxing it. Build dams to store water, then move it and use it wisely. I reckon we're a clever enough country to do that.


No comments: