Why Tim Wilson is wrong about “n______”

This article on the referential nature of language and our ‘Freedom Commissioner’s’ failure to understand it is excellent. I highly recommend you all read it.

Castan Centre for Human Rights Law

By  Patrick Emerton

A little over a week ago, Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson stated that he objects to current laws governing racially offensive behaviour because they allow members of particular communities to refer to one another using words that outsiders may not:

Asked whether he was referring to the word “n–––“, Mr Wilson said: “I won’t say it, but that’s right.”

Wilson then argued that repealing the relevant legislation – section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth) – would restore “equality” to Australia’s discrimination laws.

This objection is radically mistaken. It rests upon a confusion about the nature of language, which on this occasion feeds a misguided political agenda.

Philosophers and cultural theorists have written a lot about the nature of language, expressing different views and coming from different perspectives. Racial, racialised and racist language is a particularly contentious matter. This blog adopts the approach of Hilary…

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Recommended Reading: My Country is a Horror Show

Today’s recommend reading comes from David Simon, the creator of one of my favourite TV series, The Wire. Published by the Guardian, it is an edited version of an impromptu speech given at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas in Sydney. The subject of the speech is the role unrestrained capitalism has played in creating the widening divide between the class of Americans who feel at their society is willing and able to meet their needs, and those who do not. Capitalism, Simon contends, has lost social compact and we are all the poorer because of it.

My Country is a Horror Show is a speech that stands as a stark warning, not only to America but to all the west and beyond.

Do take the time to read it.

Recommended Reading: Australia, Australians and Taxation

Today’s recommended reading is two blog posts that have been inspired by recent debate in Australia about the government’s role in taxing citizens’ savings, especially that accumulated because of our system of mandated superannuation (pension). The main questions have been what rate, if any, these savings should be taxed, and should those who are relatively well off be taxed at a higher rate than those who are not.

One of the posts, by ACTU economist Matt Cowgill, deals directly with these questions. The other, by blogger and policy wonk Greg Jericho, considers the impact the introduction of a form of flat income tax would have on Australian taxpayers as a whole.

I rate these as recommended reading as these are opinions we are not likely to read in our Murdoch and Fairfax dominated daily press.

As a quick matter of context, and to add my own opinion to the mix, I’d also like to briefly consider what passes for economic debate in this country and why I think it is unique to other parts of the world.

First, is the above mentioned penetration of the Murdoch/Fairfax press duopoly. Others have written extensively about this so I will not go into it into detail here. Suffice to say that although as a western nation we reify the notion of the freedom of the press, we do no such thing for the diversity of media outlets. Nor do we adequately hold our free press to the high standards of truth that should be required by their privileged position within our society.

Second, and possibly more importantly, is the somewhat confused state which many of us approach these important public debates. And this, in no small measure, is largely a result of the above.

Australia, you see, is torn between the perennially diminishing power of the British motherland and its similarly diminishing welfare state (not to mention its various European counterparts to which we’ve often looked for inspiration) and the extreme capitalist individualism practised by America; our other ‘great and powerful friend’ from the other side of Pacific.

This leads to a problem where much political (and therefore public) debate is coloured by the cultural, political and economic hegemony of the United States. Whilst, at the same time, our history, institutions and political philosophies—and therefore much of our unselfconscious cultural (or common-sense) understanding of ourselves and the world—are built more upon the British/European tradition of the welfare state, albeit a significantly modified antipodean version.

The result is that Australians, for the lack of a better expression, often want their cake and to eat it too.

That is, we approach debates about taxation, welfare and the role of government believing that we should provided many of the traditional benefits that go along with the welfare state (and, at times, much more) because, hey, they always have in the past. On the other hand, we also have a tendency to believe much of what we’re told about the role of the individual, and more importantly individual wealth, in the economy. Much of which, as I’ve said, is delivered to us via channels controlled by those whose vested interests probably don’t align with yours, mine or most other ‘ordinary Australian’s’

This leaves public debate in a state where we are both demanding that the government make sure we get our ‘fair share’ of whatever subsidies the welfare state provides AND that it keeps its hands out of the pockets of ‘ordinary’—and by ordinary here we include even quite rich—Australian’s pockets.

The problem is, we just can’t have it both ways. Either the government is responsible for raising taxation and spending it upon the services and subsidies we demand of it, or it is not; and we go without many of the aspects of the welfare state with which we have become accustomed.

And here’s the rub, it just does not suit those who are most in a position to influence debate to illuminate this as a problem. That is, it doesn’t fit The Narrative that they are most willing to portray because it suits their interests to keep the public ill informed, and divided. So what we end up with is a situation where, when commenting on the Governmnet’s planned changes to the superannuation regime, the alternative Prime Minister can say something like this:

is a government which is prepared to tax the people to fund own spending.

Without it a) being challenged as seriously nonsensical; b) finding it reported as a legitimate critique of Government policy.

I, for one, look forward to not being taxed by an Abbott led Coalition Government which should miraculously also find itself having none of its own spending commitments.

Recommended Reading: A diet of media diversity.

Today’s Recommended Reading is a double-header. The first comes from the Powerhouse, The Global Mail‘s Parliamentary Press Gallery folk and is, in part, a response to the hysterical reaction of the Murdoch press to the Federal Government’s proposed new media laws. The second, is a Crikey post on roughly the same subject.

Let’s, just for a moment, set the scene. Yesterday, the Communications Minister, Stephen Conroy, announced that the Gilliard Government would introduce new media laws as a result of the Finkelstein Inquiry completed last year.

In part, the legislation is aimed at ensuring media organisations of reasonable size are able to be held properly accountable for what they print or say and at ensuring any future mergers between Australian media organisations are in the public interest. By all reports, the substance of legislation is reasonably benign with the more contentious issues being delayed and possibly completely shelved.

Now, given I know little about the laws themselves having not had a chance to read them, let’s put aside the issue of their content. Instead, I’d like to focus on the predictable response of the press. Most importantly, that of the Murdoch press and of its CEO, Kim Williams.

Yesterday, Williams characterised the legislation as a “gun to the head” to the “notion of free speech” and Conroy as attacking the fundamental “democracy of our parliamentary system” while the Daily Telegraph, News Ltd’s Sydney focussed tabloid, likened the Minister to Stalin, Mao and Castro. The Australian, I’m sure, had a crack too but since it’s behind a paywall I’m saved from being assaulted with their views as well. All in all, the response was just a little bit over the top.

Most interesting for me, however, was this interview that Williams gave on Lateline last evening, especially in light of the Global Mail article to which this post is a response. In the interview Williams spoke of the diversity media coverage contained within the News Ltd group of newspapers, claiming:

the Australian, the Herald Sun, the Courier-Mail, the Adelaide Advertiser, the Cairns Post, the Townsville Bulletin, the Hobart Mercury, the Geelong Advertiser, the Northern Territory News, all… ran diverse coverage about this announcement in quite different ways, reflecting a diversity of opinion, quite fundamental to the operation of a free press.

Given the extraordinary density of media ownership within Australia; the unparalleled penetration of News Ltd owned newspapers throughout Australian cities and the singular voice with which News Ltd outlets, be them print or online most often shout, WIlliams’ claims to internal diversity of opinion is laughable.

Or it would be if more people relied on a diverse enough set of media outlets to be able to see it for the pure bald faced bullshit that it is.

So please, join with me and read both the article by Mike Seacombe in the Global Mail and the one by Bernard Kene in Crikey. Because hey, a diversity of media diet might just go some way to staving off the senility that is often the outcome of too much Murdoch and little variety.

Mining, taxation & the National Interest

The Gillard’s Government’s mining tax, or more correctly the Minerals Resources Rent Tax (MRRT), has been in the news a bit lately. This week, the High Court of Australia has been hearing a case that argues the tax is unconstitutional and just a couple of weeks ago the tax made headlines revelations that in its first six months of operation it has raised just a fraction amount forecast.

Indeed, Tax Office figures show that in the first half of the 2012/2013 fiscal year the MMRT raised just $126 million of the two or three billion dollars that Treasury had forecast as recently as last October.

With that revelation came predictable calls from the Greens and cross-bench MPs to redesign the tax to ensure that it meets it’s original goal and further promises from the Opposition that, should it win the election, the tax will be scrapped.

Not to be left out, the mining lobby group the Minerals Council of Australia (MCA)also entered the fray, taking out newspaper advertisements warning the Government against changing the design of the tax. Should the Government proceed, the miners suggested, the advertising campaign that precipitated the downfall of then Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd would be revived.

In an election year the headlines such news garners are, at the very least, politically embarrassing. To a government already staring into the electoral abyss, they’re seriously damaging. Especially when the person responsible for the both the MMRT and its poorly received and politically doomed predecessor the Resources Super Profits Tax (RSPT) remains the Treasurer and Deputy Prime Minister.

Yet despite the failures of Government, the tax remains extraordinarily popular amongst the voting public. A fact that shows that arguments for its continued existence and further refinement remain, for now, the Government’s to be lost. This popularity also raises the question of why an alternative Government, in search of income from which to fund its promises, would continue to pledge its speedy demise.

While proving an important background, the poor performance of the MMRT and its effect on the electoral prospects of the Gillard government are not the subject of this post. Neither is considerable ineptitude shown by the Treasurer, Wayne Swan, in negotiating, implementing and selling both versions of the tax. Nor will I further discuss the Coalition’s ever expanding list of policy commitments and shrinking income from which to fund them.

Instead, what I would like to consider the advertising campaign run by the mining lobby against Rudd, Swan and the RSPT in 2010. A campaign eerily similar to another run in the 1980s against national land rights legislation, another initiative of the federal ALP.

What, you ask, does a long dead campaign against an already implemented tax have to do with the 2013 federal election? Especially, if as is expected, an incoming Coalition soon consigns the tax to a footnote in the economic history of the nation.

Plenty, is the answer to that rhetorical turn.

If, for example, we see the ALP returned then the MMRT is here to stay and with, it remains the threat of a fresh MCA advertising offensive. That is, a lobby group funded by some of the largest and richest of international conglomerates has promised to once again turn its collective wealth against an elected Australian government. Should it, that is, not continue to bow to its demands. Hardly the democratic process our nation deserves.

If, on the other hand, we find ourselves faced with an Abbott Coalition, the MMRT is likely to be repealed, taking with it the threat of a new round of advertising. Yet, even if this is the scenario we face, the message the industry is selling is unlikely to change. The difference will be one of governmental persuasion and distance. No longer will miners need resort to the megaphone, when a governmental ear into which to speak is on offer.

So what then, does the mining industry want us to believe? And just how would this benefit them over the combined national interest of the Australian nation?

Advertising campaigns like the one employed by the MCA against the Rudd Government’s RSPT have precedent; indeed, they have antecedent too. A brief look at these might just give a clue.

In 2011 the MCA followed its 2010 campaign by joining with the coal, transport and plastics industry associations to form the Australian Trade and Industry Alliance, a body whose sole purpose was to advertise against the Government’s carbon pricing regime. A campaign, that while selling a similar message, was far less successful than the effort directed toward Rudd and the RSPT.

More successful, and for our purposes instructive, was the campaign launched by the Chamber of Mines Western Australia (CMWA) and the Australian Mining Industry Council (AMIC), against Aboriginal land rights in the mid 1980s.

The first of its kind, this campaign was extraordinarily successful, ultimately leading to both federal and Western Australian ALP governments abandoning their respective commitments to the implementation of legislated land rights. It was this campaign that became the blueprint for much that would follow, including the advertising launched against Rudd and the RSPT. Another extraordinary successful venture.

A juxtaposition of the two is telling, not just the similarities in style and message but also for how the lobby presents its members, and their interests, to the Australian public.

Focussed upon Western Australia, the campaign of the 1980s ran under the slogan ‘land rights should be equal rights’. It consisted of full page advertisements printed in major newspapers across the country and, in Western Australia, television advertisements were shown throughout the day.

Fast forward thirty years and following Rudd’s announcement of the RSPT a high profile advertising was again turned against a government policy initiative. Again, the lobby availed itself of wide-scale print and high rotation television advertisements, this time under the catch cry ‘keep mining strong’. The difference, however, was that much of this round was directed squarely at government.

Back in the 1980s, although the miners did not outright oppose the granting of land rights, the campaign’s sole purpose was the destruction of public support for the most important aspects of the land rights regime: an Aboriginal veto over mining and exploration on traditional lands; and legislated access to profits and royalties. In other words, the very provisions that gave Aboriginals a say in the economic future of their communities.

In 2010, miners also didn’t oppose the paying of tax per se, just the tax as it was designed by the Government of the day. In other words, the bits they opposed were ones that made it effective. A fact that became all to clear as the taxable value of resources plummeted amongst revelations they were valued at their boom-time peak.

The campaign conceived in the 1980s, centred around the notion of Crown ownership of mineral rights and the advertising played the politics of envy and fear, setting wealthy sections of the community against those most in need. The government, it was claimed, should retain its traditional rights to mineral deposits, profits and royalties for the benefit of all Australians and not just the few.

To hammer this point, advertising extolled the importance of the mining industry to the economic life of the nation. Taxes, royalties and employment all contributed to the health and wealth of the nation. The inference, was that land rights would grant Aboriginals sole access to wealth that would otherwise benefit every Australian citizen.

Three years ago, the mining campaign revolved around the damage an extra tax would do to the economy. To illustrate the point, advertising highlighted the importance of mining to the economy, and hence to every Australian.

During the 1980s, miners argued that under a system of land rights, Aboriginals would ‘lock up’ the land by charging miners exorbitant royalties for access to mineral deposits. Others would simply exercise their new found right and exclude mining companies indefinitely. This, it was said, would lead to a dramatic fall international investment as, rather than risk the uncertainty represented by land rights, mining companies looked to invest their capital elsewhere.

This, most famously, was illustrated by a television commercial that depicted a black hand building a brick wall dividing Western Australia in two. As the wall rose, an ominous voice-over warned against the dangers of allowing an Indigenous minority to claim ownership over ‘up to fifty percent’ of the State, a development that threatened ‘the future wealth’ of every Australian.

In 2010, miners argued that a new tax would to a massive fall in investment as the industry, looking for certainty, moved its capital investment offshore. Television advertising depicted everyday Australians from miners, to pilots, to retirees who stood lose out as the future wealth of the nation shifted offshore.

In neither case did the predicted collapse in investment transpire. Best not let the truth get in the way of an effective campaign.

In the 1980s, the campaign slogan invoked every Australian’s desire to be treated as equal. Land rights, we were led to believe, risked the very egalitarian foundation of Australian society. As mineral wealth became concentrated within the small Indigenous community, white Australians would lose and inequality and division would become a feature of Australian society. The extreme of the conservative commentariat commentators took this argument to ridiculous lengths, equating land rights with the South African system of apartheid.

Thirty years on and the methods have changed yet the message remains largely the same. Slogans today point to strength of the industry and urge Australians to protect it, should we unnecessarily weaken the nation. From the sidelines, the same commentariat use the same arguments to accuse government of class war and, once again, dividing the nation This time, the ridiculous end of to which they will go is the suggestion that a tax implemented by a democratic elected government represents some from of sovereign risk. Much like the idea that land rights should be equal rights, this is argument that comes directly from the industry itself.

In each cases message being sold to us is clear: mining is in the national interest. And, what is good for mining, is good for Australia.

By aligning self interest with the collective interest of the nation the miners have long been able to persuade Australians to protect their business from government. Any threat to the way they do business, real or perceived, is presented as a threat to the future prosperity of the nation.

When appraising policy from either side of the political fence we need ask ourselves, does the national interest really align that closely to that of a few very large, mostly foreign owned, multi-national corporations? And, in whose interest is this particular policy?

No matter who forms government after September 14, you can bet the miners will be selling them the very same message. It will be interesting to see if they swallow it. My bet is they will, no matter if its delivered through a whisper in the ear or a megaphone pointed at the people.

If it’s one thing that both miners and political parties do well, it’s pretending they care about you, me and the national interest.

This post was originally published on the AusVotes2013 blog, go take a look.

Recommended Reading – Rights of Asylum Seekers.

Today I start what I hope to be a new series, that of adding links to news, editorials and blogs that I find interesting and/or thought provoking.

Today’s recommended reading comes from Melbourne’s Saturday’s Age published on 2nd of March. It is an editorial defending the right of refugee’s to seek asylum in Australia without the threat of indefinite detention.

I just wish Fairfax, and The Age more specifically, would follow it’s own advice when it comes to reporting upon the he said/she said politics of of the asylum debate. When it is dogwhistling, racist or a race to the bottom, call it so.

You can read the article here: http://www.theage.com.au/opinion/editorial/speaking-up-for-those-who-cant-20130301-2fbt2.html

It’s Time for a Debate on Federal Fixed Terms

Last month, the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, announced that the nation would go to the polls on September 14th 2013. The announcement made political history and caught the nation off guard.

One issue highlighted by Gillard’s announcement, was that of fixed electoral terms for the Commonwealth Parliament. This is an issue that the Australian electorate need seriously consider.

 Let’s begin with the basics.

The Australian Parliament consists of a House of Representatives and a Senate. For reasons of history and political stability, members of each are elected using different systems of voting and for different lengths of time.

Members of the House are elected for a maximum period of three years. This period, however, is flexible and the Prime Minister has the power to call an election at any time.

Life in the Senate is different. Senators are elected for terms of six years, fixed from the date that they assume their seat, regardless of whether an early election is called.

As Anthony Green shows nationally, the Commonwealth is in the minority in retaining this structure. Although Tasmania and Queensland still have fully flexible lower house terms, each of the remaining States and Territories have adopted fixed terms in upper and lower houses.

The international story is similar. The majority of Canadian provinces have fixed term electoral cycles. In Britain and New Zealand, political debate has so coloured perceptions that prime ministers in both countries have recently set election dates far in advance of what was required.

Back in Australia, a general election is typically held around every three years. Each election sees half of the Senate and the entire House of Representatives up for re-election. A system that keeps Senate and House elections roughly in sync.

But what happens after a number of early elections? Or in the case of a mid-term double dissolution election in which every seat in both houses is up for grabs? Clearly, the result would be a desynchronisation of the electoral cycles between the houses.

In this situation a government has two options: to hold a separate half senate election; or to hold an early general election. Typically governments are politically averse to the first and so the second is more likely.

Next let’s consider why a government would risk a loss by heading to an early poll. There are at least three reasons of which I can think, each revolving around the idea of electoral advantage.

First, a government traveling well in the polls may decide it is better to risk its position when there is a good chance of being returned. In the process it earns itself another three years. This is what happened in 1998 when Howard went to an election in October despite his term in office not expiring until March the next year.

Second, a government without control of the Senate may find it difficult to pass key aspects of its legislative agenda. In this instance it may call a double dissolution election. However, governments are normally reluctant to take this path as it is seen as politically risky. In 2009, for example, the Rudd government decided not to hold a double dissolution election when its emissions trading legislation failed to pass the Senate. By contrast, in 1987Hawke utilised a double dissolution to exploit opposition disunity, winning his government a third term in office.

Finally, as mentioned above, a government may call an election to bring Senate and House elections back into alignment. This may be done to avoid having to hold two federal elections in a single calendar year. This was part of Hawke’s rationale when, despite his government being barely 18 months old, he called an election for December 1984.

What all this means is that the Australian population head to the polls much more often than the nominal three years our system leads us to expect. In fact, since Federation Australians have voted in a Commonwealth election on average about every 30 months. In the 25 years before the turn of the century, this had come down to a little over every 27 months.

What then are the advantages of fixed electoral terms?

The first, and most obvious, advantage is that a fixed term in office removes the problem of short governments causing the desynchronisation of electoral cycles between the House and the Senate. Fixed terms do not, however, address the problem if its occurrence is due to calling of a double dissolution election.

Another advantage would be the significant reduction electoral costs associated with the falling number of elections. Governments in fixed systems are much more likely to run full term. We can therefore expect to see the number of elections held per year to fall significantly.

A third advantage also relates to the increase in time between elections. Short electoral cycles can result in short-sighted policy. Policy designed with the maintenance of electoral appeal in mind is arguably compromised from the beginning. What incentive is there for a government to make difficult policy decisions that are likely only to bear fruit in five or perhaps ten years? The increase in governments running full-term would go some way to addressing this problem.

A final, and particularly significant, benefit of fixed terms is the removal from the sitting prime minister of the ability to call an election at a time of her choosing. This ‘prime ministerial pejorative’ is a substantial advantage of incumbency and allows a government to manipulate election dates for partisan ends. Its removal would be a significant win for the electorate.

On this evidence, there is a strong case for thinking about the structure and length of our electoral cycle. Now that the Prime Minister has opened the debate, we as a nation would be foolish not to make sure it continues.

An edited version of this post also appears on The Conversation, that version is released under a Creative Commons no derivatives 3.0 license.

New Matilda – Publishing Again!

The Australian indi media site New Matilda that ceased publishing new content in June as it continued to struggle to find a business model that could support the publishing structure that it had created without continued financial support by a benefactor has recommenced publishing this week. As Editor Marni Cordell explains, she has taken over financial responsibility for New Matilda as they seek to relaunch the site around a business model that is more reminiscent of those utilised by public broadcasters than of either other new media sites or even traditional media’s online portals. This is a move I support. I am not one who believes hiding content behind a paywall of some description is an intelligent business model, not for established media such as the Murdoch press and certainly not for a small independent outfit such as New Matilda which can do with all the exposure they can muster.

New Matilda promises to return to providing the same news, comment and analysis from an independent standpoint for which they became known before having to close their doors; along with a new focus upon the type of investigative journalism that many believe is all too lacking in today’s centralised media landscape. If Cordell and her team can indeed manage to return New Matilda to its former glory and, perhaps, build upon the very strong reputation they carry with them, they just might be able to find a niche within the Australian media landscape that is not only extremely valuable but also sustainable. This, however, they will not be able to do alone and unsurprisingly New Matilda are looking for people who are able to support their effort. If you value an independent media, like I do, I urge you to support New Matilda, like I have. It’s easy, just click on the link below and Fund Break will help you do the rest.

I wish Cordell and her team the best and look forward to a daily dose of quality independent media.

Google is Watching – Privacy concerns in the electronic age.

Chris Dziemborowicz, a lawyer and blogger, writes at NewMatilda.com about his concerns over Google’s recent indiscretions when it comes to the collecting and storing of WiFi data by its StreetView vehicles; a view that another blogger, zielwolf‘ argues is “collective luddite paranoia and melodrama”. I would like to suggest that zielwolf’s attitude to privacy is somewhat caviller. My response, posted on NewMatilda.com, is below.


I cannot help think that when zielwolf states “[w]hat Google is doing here is analogous to someone walking around collecting addresses” he is fundamentally mistaken about the seriousness of the issue.

As Dziemborowicz states in his piece, Google admitted to collecting not just WiFi identifiers but also, where networks were unsecured, data sent across these networks. To further zielwolf’s analogy, this is more akin to collecting not just street addresses but also some small pieces of the content of the mail contained within the letterbox at these address. As with the mail in one’s letterbox, this information has the potential be of a particularly sensitive nature.

Secondly, and this is a point that Dziemborowicz also misses, is that notwithstanding Google’s assurances of the limited nature of the information collected, the accidental nature in which it was collected, or its assurances of its intention to destroy this information, Google not only posses the immense computing power that would enable this information to be utilised in ways that we, as as owners of this information, may not be comfortable with; it is also an organisation that is based on, and derives its primary income from, using precisely these small pieces of data in order to provide marketing and advertising services. Google is a corporation and as such it exists to make money. It does this, not by providing you services, but providing them to people who want to know about, and market to you. This is a point that is often lost when discussing privacy in the electronic age.

And finally, zielwolf’s assertion that this is only an issue for those who have not bothered to secure properly their WiFi networks is also a straw man. This argument is not only based upon the assumption that we all possess the technical ability to know how to do this but also that we this to be an issue in the first place. It further assumes that all societies operate within the same technical and social internet paradigm that we do here in Australia. Google is an international corporation and as Dziemborowicz points out these same issues have been raised by privacy advocates in other jurisdictions. Notwithstanding other arguments about network security, internet access in other countries, by and large, does not operate within the same download and bandwidth limitations that we do. This removes the economic driver that zielwolf suggests drives us to secure WiFi networks so that others can use them. The result is that in other parts of the world there are many more open WiFi networks that we find here.

I would like to suggest that Dziemborowicz is rightly concerned about privacy issues within the electronic age, albeit not concerned enough.