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Posts Tagged ‘Australia’

On the Frances Abbott Affair

I thought I’d comment on a political story that had emerged recently here in Australia wherein Prime Minister Tony Abbott is being forced to answer embarrassing questions about whether or not he used his influence to expedite the accreditation of a school attended by his daughter Frances. The school in question, the Whitehouse Institute of Design, is a private vocational establishment in Surry Hills, a gentrified suburb of inner Sydney known for its fashion.

The main thrust of the story is that the owner and director of the school, a close friend of the Abbotts, awarded Frances a one-off scholarship worth $60,000. This scholarship is not advertised, not regularly awarded, not open to applicants and conferred only at the discretion of the managing director. Ms Abbott received it after a single one-on-one interview between herself and said managing director and no announcement of any kind was made about the award.

In Australia, politicians are expected to disclose all gifts and donations they and their families may receive as a result of their positions in order to provide transparency to the public. A politician may be invited to attend a movie premiere or gala and such a thing might be declared. However, if a benefit is earned, say a political scion is paid a bonus at work or wins a competition, it need not be declared. This is only fair. After all, the proceeds of their own hard work is their own business.

The scandal then in this case, all stems from Mr Abbott’s failure to declare the scholarship. When the story broke, the Prime Minister’s office held to the line that the scholarship was earned and thus did not need declaring. Opponents in turn say that it was given in the course of lobbying by Whitehouse and accuse Mr Abbott of having a conflict of interest, especially in light of proposed sweeping changes to the way higher learning institutions are funded.

It seems to me that such accusations and insinuations are overblown. The director of Whitehouse probably saw in young Ms Abbott an opportunity to greatly enhance the prestige of her school at minimal cost to her bottom line. Counting among your alumni a child of the most actively powerful man in Australian politics is no small thing. That it would ingratiate her to the Abbott family on a personal level was, I’m sure, just a valuable bonus.

Much of the story sounds like people doing favours for their friends, something that happens all the time. Far from being frowned upon in private life, it is positively encouraged by many as the primary way to get ahead in life. Among business owners, this can take the form of discounted or gratis services, preferential hiring/promoting and referrals to/contact with other prosperous or influential people.

This kind of favoritism (dare I say nepotism?), while understandable and commonplace, has the effect of accruing these unearned personal benefits at the top. The list of rich people’s friends tends not to include many people on the dole, after all. This is fine on an individual moral level, but bad for society as a whole if you believe that equal opportunity is a public good.

Which is why this behaviour, which is perfectly acceptable in the private sector, is abhorred by the public when exhibited by politicians. The Commonwealth exists for and belongs to all of us, not just those who were born into the right families, attended the right schools, live in the right postcode or have the right hobbies and priorities. Fitting the correct mould should not, by definition, be a prerequisite for fair treatment in a just society. People who presume to legislate and control the public purse strings are held to a higher standard for just this reason.

I’ll be honest, to me it doesn’t look as though there was intent on the part of Mr Abbott to grant Whitehouse any kind of preferential treatment and I don’t think any evidence of such actions will be found. That doesn’t mean that Mr Abbott hasn’t failed multiple times to live up to the standards expected of a public servant, let alone the office of Prime Minister.

I couldn’t tell you if this is a scandal fit to bring down a government. My gut says no, that it lacks substance and will blow over in a month or so, though not before causing untold embarrassment to the Abbott family and especially the young woman at the centre of this furor. The fact is however that it looks bad, and looking bad, from a political point of view, can be just as corrosive to public trust as being guilty.

What rankles me the most about this is the sheer hypocrisy. At a time when the government proposes to deregulate tuition fees, impose real interest to HECS/HELP loans (government-provided student loans hitherto interest free and linked to inflation alone) and gut the welfare schemes that allow many students to study in the first place, the child of the man presiding over these changes gets her degree for free and for no other reason than because the director of the school likes her. It’s appalling and flies in the face of the personal responsibility mantra the Abbott government preaches.

Liberal Party ideology sees the world split between the ordinary and the excellent. The excellent, as they see it, have an outsized role in driving the engine of society and it is only just, they believe, that they should get to accrue as much of society’s rewards as they can get their hands on. Similarly, the ordinary, making less of a contribution, are thus deserving of less. This is why high taxes are bad – they take money from the pockets of the excellent. This is also why welfare is bad – it puts money in the pockets of the undeserving.

That those who see the world this way and would count themselves among the excellent get such an unearned head start on the rest of society and do it so unapologetically puts a bitter taste in the mouth of anyone who has had to work their way through university or carries an unpaid student debt into their 30s (and following fee deregulation, their 40s). Life isn’t fair, obviously, but public life should be about doing as much as possible to make it fairer.

A Rant on the Refugee Issue

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For those of you unaware of Australian politics or reading this at some future date, there was recently an election in Australia, wherein the right-wing National-Liberal Coalition won a sweeping victory over the left-wing Labor party, ushering in the Tony Abbott prime ministership. One of the most visible issues during the election campaign was the increased arrival of asylum seekers in boats from places such as Sudan, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Iran and how their arrival was handled by the federal government.

Now, this issue was first put into the national spotlight by the government of John Howard (another Liberal Party prime minister) who, in the wake of the September 11 attacks in the US, elevated the issue to become a matter of national security. There were strategic electoral reasons he did this, which I won’t go into here, but suffice it to say that attitudes toward boat arrivals, which had been quite lenient since the Vietnam war, hardened considerably. When Labor took government under Kevin Rudd, this policy did not change. Public opinion had shifted sharply to the right on the issue and the new government was terrified of being painted as “soft” on the issue.

This last campaign (2013) had the hysteria over the topic reach fever pitch, with prominent newspapers actively reporting a count on the number of boat arrivals daily. The Labor party announced ever tougher measures on the issue of boats, promising to resettle asylum seekers arriving by boat in places such as Papua New Guinea, while the Coalition promised to use the navy to turn or tow boats back into Indonesian waters.

No policy was too harsh, no measure too draconian, no rhetoric was too xenophobic during the campaign, and it came from both sides of the narrow aisle. Mandatory voting in Australia means that parliament is closer to representative of the electorate, but it does mean that substantive policy differences are often either nonexistent or illusory.

I wrote the following rant during this election campaign, with emotions running high. I was angry and disgusted, first at the politicians themselves, for pandering to these xenophobes and at the news media, for their complicity.

My family came to Australia under a refugee visa, fleeing the Salvadoran Civil War.

I used to play with some kids who lived across the road. Their names are C├ęsar, Maria Elena and Edgar. One day, soldiers bashed down their door and seized their dad. He was never seen again.

For much of my childhood, I was afraid of soldiers, police and helicopters and knew that I was to hide under my bed when I heard the sound of a helicopter or a door knock after nightfall.

My uncle and aunt had to duck and weave through the streets of the village while she was in labour because it was after dark and the midwife refused to break curfew for any reason, not even for a birth. People were being shot on sight if they were caught in the streets at night.

I saw the decapitated body of a man lying in the village square as my grandmother and I were going out to breakfast. He had been executed by the army in the night and left there as a warning to the other villagers that this is what happened to anyone who joined the leftist guerrillas. My grandmother covered my eyes and rushed me away as soon as she realised what was going on, because that isn’t the kind of thing you want a four-year-old to see.

That war took a nation of people and turned them mean, violent, callous and uncaring. Law and order broke down because people were torn between two sides and it was never clean. The sheer terrifying scale of the slaughter and rapine turned people numb, because to face what was happening otherwise would be unbearable. It is an awful thing to watch people you know and care about suffer this kind of brutality. It is downright perverse when the perpetrators of that violence are your neighbours, people you know and share things in common with.

Neither the army nor the guerrillas were some invading force, some clearly visible other onto whom we could project all our fear and hatred. The soldiers and rebels both were us, they were people we could name, people we had visited, had meals with, were related to. You couldn’t even discuss what was happening openly, because you never knew who might be listening. Owning a tape of the wrong kind of music could get you killed. God help you if had you ever made an enemy or crossed someone who was particularly vindictive, because a whispered word in the right ear could make inconvenient people vanish.

People who like post-apocalyptic dystopias in their fiction often do because the kind of conflict this sets up is exciting and because the complete breakdown of a society allows a kind of freedom from the moral boundaries that hem in our worst tendencies. Whether we like to admit it or not, there is a kind of twisted, sinister joy in the fantasy of violently killing with impunity, free of the inconvenient baggage of a guilty conscience. Why else would games like GTA or Call of Duty be so popular? Why else would the premise of The Last of Us be anything but utterly repellant?

The people who come here by boat are coming from places where society has, for whatever reason, broken down. They’re not coming so they can live high on the hog off our welfare system and mooch off the Australian tax payer. They’re not coming here because we’re bleeding heart suckers who’ll believe any sob story thrown out way. They’re not packing their children onto rickety boats, paying some shady thug their life savings and crossing an ocean because they want to bask on our sandy beaches and impose their ways onto the land of strangers they’re heading to.

They come here because Australia is safe and has a reputation for being so. This country is blessedly free of the rampant violence, the constant fear and the unending horror of life in a war zone or as a member of a persecuted minority. Nobody who was born and grew up here had to deal with the kind of horror they’ve been witness to and to shut them out simply because it threatens our safe, comfortable existence is a selfish, neglectful kind of evil.

I may vehemently disagree with and strongly condemn the Anglo-Celtic nationalist lunatics who inhabit the fringes of Australian politics, but at least they’re honest about their attitudes on this topic. I hope someday to live in an Australia that believes in a “fair go” for all, and not just for those already here, an Australia that can sing the line of its national anthem “for those who’ve come across the seas, we’ve boundless plains to share“, and mean it.

Trying to Understand the Country Vote

This post is adapted from one of my comments to a thread about Australian politics. It was inspired by an interactive map that plotted the majority political opinions in the various federal districts around Australia. One thing that really stuck out was the polarisation of opinions between urban and rural areas, especially in the states of Queensland and Western Australia.

One big hot-button issue these past few years has been the matter of taxation reform for the mining industry. Now, what you need to understand about this topic is that land ownership in Australia works a lot differently to that of other parts of the world, most notably the US.

The main difference is that under right of capture, land ownership in the US also includes ownership of any minerals or natural resources buried in that land. This is easy to understand and what most people naturally assume is the case. After all, Jed Clampett became a millionaire after striking oil on his otherwise worthless swamp.

However, in Australia, things are more complicated. It turns out that if you own land, you technically have a freehold, which means you can use that land for most normal purposes (farming, building etc.) but the minerals underneath it don’t belong to you – they belong to the people collectively.

If you want to extract wealth from the ground, be oil, gas, metals etc., you need a special permit allowing you to do so. Sometimes, these permits allow you to extract the resources that sit under land held by other people in freehold or leasehold. More often than not these people are farmers and none too happy being forced by the government to give you access to their land.

In return for the right to mine resources, the system up until a few years ago had you pay a set fee for every tonne of stuff you dug out of the ground. This was a great policy in the early part of the 20th century, when mineral prices were low and mining labour-intensive. It gave the government a stable source of revenue. In recent years, with the high mineral prices and extensive automation of the industry, you had a situation wherein a smaller and smaller proportion of the profits generated by mines were being recirculated in either the communities that serviced them or by the Australian people at large.

Cue the Mining Profits Super Tax, a policy designed to redress this failing and reform the system. Unfortunately for proponents of the measure, it was introduced poorly and politically mishandled, prompting a very loud and very public campaign against this “Mining Tax” by the mining lobby. The government then, fresh off the narrowest reelection margins in living memory, thanks in large part to this campaign, de-fanged the proposal and pushed it through in a watered down form.

People in the cities were broadly supportive of the proposal. It meant that mining companies, Australia’s biggest and wealthiest, would finally pay their fair share. People in rural areas, however, were broadly against the proposal, as it represented a threat to their own pockets.

The economic policies favoured by the country then, are basically the result of people voting to preserve their livelihoods and develop their own communities economically. Queensland and Western Australia both have vast swathes of land where people living there have very few options when it comes to earning a living.

Another big issue on which city and country were divided was on the issue of refugees, and, more broadly, the topic of multiculturalism itself, with its various sub-controversies, such as the recognition of Indigenous/Aboriginal Australians in the constitution and recognition of their rights in general. Opinions on all these topics seem to be broadly aligned. That is, if you hold one opinion, you’re more likely than not to hold others. That is to say that someone who is against Australia accepting new refugees that arrive in the country by boat is far less likely to agree that Aboriginal Australians should be singled out for special recognition in the constitution.

Needless to say, the latter views are far more prevalent in rural areas and these correlate strongly with conservative economic attitudes.

The anti asylum seeker and anti Aboriginal attitudes of rural voters are, I believe, borne out of the isolation and homogeneity of their communities, as well as the fact that the general population in these areas have less education than the cities. We’re talking about the whitest, least educated areas in Australia, which narrows people’s worldviews somewhat, to the point where their preferred solutions to policy problems don’t involve abstractions like social justice or depend so much on stuff like statistical analysis, but are pragmatic and concrete, here-and-now fixes.

A farmer or grazier sees him or herself as a steward of their own land. After all, the farmer who fails to look after their own land exhausts it quickly and bankrupts their business, failing to pass it on to their own kids. This is why they resent these big city greenies (i.e. environmentalists) who come in and tell them that because of aggregate overuse of the fresh water supply, everyone suffers and desertification and salination are taking place.

The farmer resents this because to them, it’s as Ann as the nose on Plain’s face that the fastest way to get desertification and salination happening on their own land is to stop using water on it. What does this greenie know about farming?

It’s the same attitudes that shape views, among white rural Australians, of the welfare state and the services it provides. As far as they’re concerned, welfare is for the lazy and services are for the cities. In the here and the now, they don’t see the intangible benefits of having a healthy welfare state, not in their own lives nor in those of their friends. As far as they’re concerned, their hard earned tax dollars are being unfairly siphoned out of their own pockets and being given to the undeserving or to the cities.

This leads into the prevalence of anti Aboriginal attitudes. In the cities, Aboriginal people have more educational and employment opportunities, more support and more hope, so urban exposure to the social problems facing their communities is somewhat lessened. In the country, and especially in more isolated places, these factors don’t come into play, so a white country person’s exposure to Aboriginal people can often be far less positive.

Perhaps on account of the isolation intrinsic to life as a farmer, people in rural areas tend to rate self-reliance as much higher on the list of virtues than a city person would. This attitude leads people to see one’s success or failure in the face of adversity to be a reflection on one’s own moral character. This means that they’re a hardy and tenaceous lot out there. The trap here, however, is the inability to see the historical and systemic forces that perpetuate the problems in Aboriginal communities and instead see these problems as the culmination of a thousand individual moral failures of the affected Aboriginal people themselves.

Why should we give any special rights or even recognition, they reason, to a bunch of drunken, violent layabouts? They have every chance, they think, to lift themselves out of their situation, clean themselves up and get a job, but they fail to do so consistently. Nope, the thinking goes, they haven’t earned the right to even be treated like equals.

Asylum seekers get it even worse, because not only are they coming and taking up tax dollars, but they’re also foreign, which means they could be bringing problems into the country that haven’t even been dreamed of yet.

I, as a city dweller and big believer in Keynesian economics, the value of using the latest science to inform policy-making and in progressive social policy, am almost the polar opposite of the rural electorate. I am also far removed from their problems and concerns. This does not, however, mean that I shouldn’t make an effort to understand them.

Too often, I see dismissal, mocking and outright contempt for these voters from others whose opinions skew to the left side of Australian politics. The thing is, they’re part of this country too, and their opinions, regardless of how heinous you may find them, matter.

Thoughts on the NBN

The following is adapted from a comment I made in a thread regarding Australian politics, mostly in response to those who support the new National-Liberal Coalition government’s plan to reduce the scope of the in-progress project, the National Broadband Network or NBN.

For those of you who don’t know, Australia currently has some of the slowest, most expensive Internet in the developed world. There are multiple reasons for this, not least of which being that the vast distances between population centres require that any attempt to address this will require outlays an order of magnitude greater on a per capita basis than what a similar measure would require in (say) Singapore, Britain or Japan.

One of the former Labor government’s policies was to remedy the issue by installing an optical fibre network along the Australian coastline, linking major urban centres together, then reaching inland rural areas via fixed wireless or satellite links. The plan was to have optical fibre connections connect each home, business and school to the exchange, delivering the fastest connection possible to every home. The popular media term for this is Fibre to the Premises, or FTTP.

The new government, however, is a conservative one and their general view of this project while in opposition has been disdainful, to say the least. There have, additionally, been problems with the way the rollout has been planned, managed and implemented, with schedule delays, cost overruns and failed targets, making the NBN an easy target for budget hawks to attack what they feel to be wasteful government spending.

Now that the Coalition have gained power, they have made moves to implement their election policy of changing this FTTP type network to a Fibre to the Node (FTTN) type one. Under the new plan, the government aims to save money by running fibre only as far as the exchange, leaving the final leg to the home as a traditional copper connection. People will, of course, have the option of paying for that last leg of fibre to be installed at their own expense, but I would argue this is prohibitively expensive for the majority, costing thousands. That is the very worst outcome in a situation where the benefits are maximised only when everybody has the same facility.

I, like many others who see technological change as not just an inevitability, but as an opportunity, disagree with this approach. I can see this plan saving a bit of money in the short term, but costing vastly more when it becomes clear that the half-baked system being proposed will need to be upgraded.

The major objections to the plan have centred on the idea that it is an extravagant boondoggle that the country cannot afford, at least without raising taxes. Again, for those of you not aware, raising taxes is anathema to the new government, whose ideology skews toward a small government philosophy. While there’s a debate to be had here, much of what has been said in the Australian media about it has been misleading and reductive at best, downright ignorant at worst.

I personally would be in favour of a tax increase or levy to pay for an NBN. I believe that public infrastructure is best paid for collectively and that responsible governance means that this will sometimes necessitate higher taxes. Even if I weren’t in favour of a tax, with government debt running at just 27% of GDP (the 4th lowest in the OECD), the nation could well afford it. I believe the economic benefits of having the infrastructure in place will more than pay for themselves in the years to come.

I see the NBN as vital infrastructure for Australia’s future akin to roads, sewage systems and the electricity grid. It will (eventually) be a public good that people will rely on and everyone will benefit from economically because it will enable new, data-driven businesses to become possible as new markets are opened up.

The same concept can be applied to road and rail infrastructure in the 19th century. Towns boomed when rail lines and highways came to them. Expanding infrastructure makes living and doing business in far-off markets viable, which increases the wealth and standard of life for everyone, not just those who were formerly at the periphery.

Unfortunately, there are big downsides to building infrastructure from a private enterprise point of view.

First is the gigantic capital cost required to get even the smallest projects off the ground. The amount of credit required to build a power plant, for instance, bars all but the biggest players from even contemplating such a thing. It’s hard enough trying to run a profitable business using existing plant, let alone trying to manage acquiring it in the first place.

Second is the fact that the economic dividends of building infrastructure aren’t necessarily immediate upon completion. The growth of a small town into a bustling regional centre is a process that can take a generation. Furthermore, even after the infrastructure is built, it may generate negative revenue for you for decades as the positive effects accumulate.

Then there is the issue of gathering that revenue in the first place. A business can only generate revenue from a plant by asking its end users to pay fees, subscriptions or tolls. That’s fine when you’re talking about non-vital services, like a self help line, but what about stuff that everybody benefits from?

Farmer Giles and Hipster Sven both benefit from Wholesaler Jimmy having use of the road between the Giles farm and the organic food market in Sven’s filthy hipster enclave, but only Jimmy ever uses the road or pays the toll. This means that Sven is bearing the brunt of the cost as it’s passed on directly by Jimmy. It also drives down the prices Giles is able to charge for his goods and limits his customer base only to people who are prepared to pay Jimmy’s outrageous prices (like Sven). However, if you could levy a fee on everyone who will benefit or potentially benefit from the road being there, you’re able to spread the cost around and no individual ever needs to be charged $5 for a mango. This way, Office Worker Wilma can head down to the same food market and buy Giles’ goods without feeling ripped off and everyone in our little story benefits. There! Everyone just benefited from being taxed.

Taxation to pay for infrastructure is a well-trod concept and I’d hate to beat a dead horse here, but it’s really important.

Consider street lights. Street lights can do a lot to improve safety in an area, by moving potential criminal activity elsewhere, enabling business to continue beyond sunset or by simply allowing night traffic to see all hazards. Everyone in a neighbourhoods benefits, even if they never drive at night.

Trouble is, if you make that a user pays system, nobody will ever put one in. They’re individually expensive, tricky to maintain and the benefits you get are diminished by the fact that the neighbours down your street opted not to pay for one. One light does not make a lit street, after all. If you owned a restaurant and lived in a world where street lights are user-pays, you’d be forgiven for concluding that it’s not worth the investment.

This is why the government’s decision to install FTTN over FTTP is a bad idea. By making it so that that last connection is user-pays, you limit the benefits of everybody having access. This means that if, in five or ten years time, virtual offices relying on (say) VR headsets and streaming, high definition 3D video and stereo sound were to become viable on entry-level computer hardware, businesses couldn’t take advantage of the savings a distributed office network offer (no renting office space, no facilities management, employees are able to work flexible hours without impacting the bottom line etc.) because they couldn’t rely on their employees having Internet connections fast enough to handle the data requirements.

Same goes for potential realtime medical monitoring, future distributed computing applications, cloud-based anything, IP telephony or on-demand HD or 3D television services.

The FTTN plan will probably be okay for now. Perhaps it’ll still be okay in five years. In ten though, in twenty? We’ll be getting spanked by Swedish firms that don’t even bother to rent office space anymore. FTTP could last us another fifty years or so, once the fibre is in the ground. What’s valuable about it is the reliable channel that will only get faster as switching technology is improved and upgraded at the exchange.

Right now we’re routinely doing things that are so data intensive they would have been unimaginable in 2003, let alone 1998. The government is being penny wise and pound foolish and crippling the Australian economy for years to come.