Privatisation: Just Who Is It For?

New South Wales is following Canberra’s lead in adopting what the Abbott government is referring to as “asset recycling”, which in practice translates to privatisation, securing 2 billion dollars under the deal.

Abbott’s five billion dollar scheme encourages states and territories to sell assists to fund infrastructure development.

The Baird leadership intends to funnel the money garnered from leasing 49% of the state’s electricity network into road and rail projects, though it is unclear as to whether this will actually take place and if it does, whether the decision is in the public interest.

Proponents of privatisation describe it as conferring a multiplicity of benefits to the public by boosting the efficiency and quality of remaining government activities, reducing taxes and shrinking government. The argument rests on the presumption that the profit seeking behaviour of private sector managers and owners will produce ever more efficient, cheap and customer focused services.

We mustn’t forget that the raison d’être of a business is to provide profit. People do not start up or buy a business for the sole purpose of serving the public, that sort of behaviour is more likely to be found in a monastery than in McDonalds. This basic profiteering function of business is primary in capitalist society, and we often see that rather than being customer or human centric, the businesses that make it to the big time cut corners when it comes to ethics and the treatment of their employees and customers.

It is not unreasonable to assume that the same profit hungry managers and owners the evangelists of privatisation refer to may have no second thoughts about implementing practices that make service unaffordable to large segments of the citizenry. Profit seeking organisations may decide that spending on the disabled or the poor is money wasted, and those affected may find it far more difficult to seek accountability than they would were the services government owned.

It is worth noting that efficiency is not the only goal of services like electricity, healthcare and water. One must also take into account quality, ease of access and sustainability when building a picture of what a successful service should look like.

Privatization was billed under Jeff Kennett’s Victorian government as leading to a more efficient and productive industry, passing on the savings to consumers. Despite Kennett’s comments to the contrary, electricity prices in the state have remained consistent with non-privatised states, only falling below the mean between 2004 and 2008.

There is evidence that companies running Victoria’s electricity services increased prices by up to 175% for “off-peak” periods, a decision which affects a sizeable portion of the populace who conduct their business during those times, perhaps the most notable example being agriculturists and farmers.

The notion that productivity would increase under privatisation has fallen apart, with the industry becoming an anchor on national productivity since the turn of the century. The private sector’s tactic of employing a higher percentage of managers and salespeople has contributed to further bureaucracy rather than having the intended effect of streamlining the industry.

Selling off government assets is typically coupled with the promise of the revenue being funnelled into new and needed infrastructure such as roads and rail networks, however the promise does not always carry through to reality. Economist John Quiggin noted that investment in infrastructure did not occur in Queensland under Bligh’s leadership despite almost ten billion dollars being made from the sale of government assets.

A 1991 report from the Harvard Business Review raised three key conclusions on the issue of privatisation that may help us frame the issue a little better:

1. Neither public nor private managers will always act in the best interests of their shareholders. Privatisation will be effective only if private managers have incentives to act in the public interest, which includes, but is not limited to, efficiency.

2. Profits and the public interest overlap best when the privatized service or asset is in a competitive market. It takes competition from other companies to discipline managerial behavior.

3. When these conditions are not met, continued governmental involvement will likely be necessary. The simple transfer of ownership from public to private hands will not necessarily reduce the cost or enhance the quality of services.

There are hidden costs of privatisation rarely spoken of by the politicians and their friendly counterparts in business. When a public service is privatised, much of the time employees are paid less on average and lose their existing benefits. On the surface this seems like a saving, but the costs of poverty and ill health must fall somewhere, and it seems it’s generally into the waiting arms of another state agency. The profits increase for those at the top of the pyramid, and those underneath carry an ever-increasing burden to support them.

It is also unclear as to whether privatisation actually does save governments money, with a study by the Project on Government Oversight finding that in 33 of 35 occupations, using contractors cost the United States Federal Government billions of dollars more than using government employees.

This seems yet another example of cosy relationships between politicians and businessmen taking priority over the wellbeing of the public. A more thorough, nonpartisan investigation into the history of privatisation in Australia, a cost benefit analysis and a public debate over the issue would go some ways to clarifying the relationship of privatisation to the people it affects.


Offshoring Our Future: Sinking Australian Jobs and the Great Barrier Reef

In spite of government lamentations about rising rates of unemployment, the NSW government is considering a plan to outsource around 240 human resources, IT, finances and payroll jobs to India.

The positions likely to be sent offshore belong to ServiceFirst, a company providing the above services to several government departments including the Office of Finance and the Treasury.

The irony of the situation is palpable. To the public, the government is styling itself as a stalwart defender of the livelihoods of its people, fighting to keep jobs in the hands of needy Australians, and curbing immigration because, as South Park so succinctly put it, “they took er jerbs!!!”

In reality, the government is seeking to cheapen its expenditure by moving those jobs to poor second and third world economies. This is not only reprehensible in a patriotic sense, leaving hardworking Australians to fend for themselves, but also in an ethical sense. The pay rates and working conditions of workers in India are some of the worst in the world, with nationals in the country working on average 8.1 hours a day as of 2011, with 191 minutes of that spent on unpaid work.

Call centre workers make on average 15,000 rupees, or 300 USD per month, which is about thrice that of employees in other sectors.

Over 94% of India’s workforce in considered unorganised, meaning unlicensed, self-employed, or unregistered economic activity such as rural traders and hand loom workers. This sector offers low productivity and lower wages. Even though it accounted for ninety four percent of workers, the unorganised sector created only 57% of India’s national domestic product in 2006, or around nine times less per worker than the organised sector.

There are reprehensible ethical issues in this sector, including debt bondage, where labour is forced from outstanding debt (otherwise known as slavery), and child labour to the tune of nearly five million children according to a 2009-10 nationwide survey.

For a government that counts human rights among it’s strongest priorities, this behaviour is woefully hypocritical.

The Public Service Association of NSW general secretary Anne Gardiner, in statements published in the Sydney Morning Herald, said that up to 30,000 of the state’s 400,000 public servants perform similar corporate service work to that targeted for outsourcing, leaving the future employment of many Australians hanging precariously in the balance.

Unemployment in the region is at a six year high, and this proposal seems to show that the government has no solid plans to turn those figures around, despite their blustering to the contrary.

In a continuance of this fine form, the Australian government has invited journalists worldwide to participate in an all expenses paid trip to the Great Barrier Reef (or should we say, areas of it that haven’t been utterly destroyed by corporate greed) in an obvious attempt to bribe the media to keep the Reef off the Unesco world heritage committee’s “in-danger” list.

It seems our government is prepared to sit on its laurels with regard to doing anything about the Great Barrier Reef other than allowing it to earn the coveted title of “understated problem of the century”, for which literally no expense is being spared.

An article by Guardian Australia reports that journalists from Germany, France, the Phillipines, Japan, India and Portugal are being flown in for a week long stay, where they’ll get to see the reef and meet “officials” who will “explain” Australia’s conservation efforts. How it’ll take a week to explain a literal absence of those efforts is beyond me.

The trip is being organised by the “Great Barrier Reef Task Force”, an organisation established not to actually prevent damage to the reef, but to prevent damage to those damaging the reef by keeping it off the Unesco “in danger” list. The government argues that it’s efforts on this front are necessary to counter “misinformation” about the state of the reef, a phrase which seems to mean any actual video footage, photography and scientific data that might jeopardise the business partnerships of government officials.

Let’s put this into perspective. One of the world’s most lucrative sources of tourism based income, a natural phenomenon that can be seen from space and that has taken at the least 10,000 years to form, is being reduced to a cloud of silt to line the pockets of men who will probably die of their cholesterol before 2030.

Rio Tinto is Moving Towns, Literally

A small town in rural New South Wales faces relocation after a bid by mining company Rio Tinto to extend the Mount Thorley-Warkworth mine.

The proposed move should be given “serious consideration” according to a New South Wales government review. What exactly can be taken seriously about the prospect of an entire town being shunted to the side to fulfil the desires and fill the wallets of companies routinely involved in poisoning just about every surface they touch is a mystery. It seems patently absurd.

The toll of Rio Tinto’s operations in the area is already disturbingly high.

The mine runs all night and throughout the day, disrupting the sleep patterns of residents. Ancient dunes to the west of the mine, the last known such landform of their kind on the planet, have been progressively destroyed. Now only 13% of the original 465 hectares remain. Endangered native fauna living in this environment is at high risk of being wiped out entirely.

This is despite the permit issued to the corporation, which stipulates that it’s activities must never destroy historic and precious landforms. It seems the focus is on the timeframe allowed for operations, which extends to 2021, rather than any legitimate ethical or environmental concerns. It seems that Rio Tinto’s regard for this contract mirrors its regard for the land it is pillaging, now wanting operations in the area to continue until at least 2032.

The New South Wales government stands to gain an extra $680 million in royalty payments from the additional coal that the mine would produce. It’s little wonder then that the decision seems likely to go ahead.

The relocation idea has not been canvassed with residents during the five years of debate over whether the mine extension is a viable option. Disconnect between governments, corporations and the people their decision affect is unfortunately the norm, but when the scale of the decision involves uprooting the contents of an entire postcode, it almost beggars belief that the populace hasn’t been informed.

It’s likely that many residents will be forced to make do with smaller properties and inadequate recompense, due to the size and sparsity of their existing homes.

A spokesman from Rio Tinto, in statements made to Guardian Australia, said that “We have followed due process at all times”.

This glib comment seems to indicate that due process to the mining giant literally equates to doing “whatever the fuck we want to.”

Censors, Censures and Campus Cops

Justice Minister Michael Keenan today elucidated new changes to the controversial “Schools Security Programme” that would involve the employment of security personnel to oversee campuses at fifty four schools across the nation.

“It’s a commitment that we made prior to the last election to make sure that we were partnering with schools that might be at particular risk of intolerance”, the Minister stated in his address to the senate.

The program has existed since 2007, however until now the legislation has excluded the use of security personnel, limiting the available avenues of spending to stronger fencing, CCTV surveillance and anti-ramming devices.

Schools receiving the $18 million include 22 government/independent schools. 29 out of the 54 are located in New South Wales, with the majority in western Sydney.

Despite increased security in American schools since the events at Sandy Hook in December 2012, there has been almost no reduction in the number of school shootings in the United States. Measures similar to the ones proposed under the new Schools Security Programme, including CCTV surveillance, stronger fencing and security personnel seem to have made no impact on the frequency and severity of the killings, raising the question as to why the Coalition believes the measures will be successful if implemented here.

A 2013 report on the Impact of Security Measures on Students, by the U.S. National Association of School Psychologists, regarding potential impact of security measures in schools, stated that: “There is no clear evidence that the use of metal detectors, security cameras, or guards in schools is effective in preventing school violence, and little is known about the potential for unintended consequences that may accompany their adoption.”

The report goes on to highlight the potential for these programs to increase criminality in students and to strengthen “street culture with its emphasis on self protection”. It also highlights the inherent implication of guilt on behalf of the student that accompanies the use of CCTV surveillance.

This is a situation that is not only likely to distract children from learning, but may also foster paranoia and self-censorship. The nature of school shootings is unpredictable, with often little to no warning that the events were going to occur until after the fact. It is unlikely that employing security guards to act as a bulwark against violence in schools will accomplish anything but a militarisation of our learning environments, colouring the social environment of our schools with an authoritarian palette.

We need to ask ourselves whether measures that have failed to deter the crimes they are established to prevent in other nations are worth the potential destabilising effect on our own school communities. Are we really so afraid of the spectre of terrorism that we are willing to surround our children with armed guards?

I sincerely hope the answer to that question is a resounding “no”.

As of approximately 1pm today, Attorney General George Brandis was censured by the senate, with a motion of 35-32, in regards to his actions towards Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs. The motion was proposed by Senator Penny Wong.

Senator Penny Wong's censure motion.

Senator Penny Wong’s censure motion.

Christine Milne, Greens party leader, in sympathy with Wong, stated that “We do not believe he is fit to hold the office of AG and not only that, his behaviour has demeaned the senate and the parliament.”

Milne says the government should have focused on the situation for children in detention rather than attacking Triggs

Labor senator Jacinta Collins has drawn attention to the fact that the Forgotten Children report is not, as Ian McDonald lazily alleged last week, a partisan affair, it features criticism of both sides of politics and also focuses the amount of time children are in detention.

Independent Senator Nick Xenophon has proposed a royal commission into children in detention, a suggestion most Australians will likely agree with. He does not believe Brandis is unfit to hold office, however believes that the Attorney General has erred “significantly” on his handling of Gillian Triggs. He supports the first four parts of the motion but not the last.

It seems that this is only the second time in our political history a censure motion has been successfully passed against an Attorney General, the first being on the 4th of April, 1973, where Senator Lionel Murphy was apparently censured “because of certain actions connected with alleged Croatian terrorism in Australia and the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation.”

The “Croatian terrorism” mentioned refers to concerns over local Utasha groups plotting to assassinate the Yugoslav Prime Minister during his visit to Australa. The Utasha was a Croatian fascist movement that had allied itself with Germany in World War Two and had active cells in Australia at the time.

The then Attorney General raided ASIO headquarters on March 16th, 1973, ordering police to open sealed filing cabinets due to concerns about ASIO’s failure to respond adequately to the aforementioned threats, finding that the security organisation had little information on the threat to the Yugoslav Prime Minister and confirming public perceptions that they were neglecting a key security issue. The Utasha group had been involved in several bombings in Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra and Brisbane during 1972, causing no deaths but damaging property and injuring members of the public.

There is little solid information available about the censure and the events leading up to it. Opinion seems to be split about whether the raid was necessary or an overreach of political power, with this scathing article by conservative magazine Quadrant opting to bat for the latter position, while this article by Andrew Zammit aligns with the former.

What is clear is that Murphy supported legal measures to strengthen the public’s ability to access government information, to remove censorship and to implement a Bill of Human Rights. Amongst the reasons for drafting the bill, the Attorney General stated that, “in criminal law, our protections against detention for interrogation and unreasonable search and seizure, for access to counsel and to ensure the segregation of different categories of prisoners are inadequate. Australian laws on the powers of the police, the rights of an accused person and the state of the penal system generally are unsatisfactory. Our privacy laws are vague and ineffective. There are few effective constraints on the gathering of information, or its disclosure, or surveillance, against unwanted publicity by government, the media or commercial organisations”.

Considering the rumours of CIA involvement in the sacking of Gough Whitlam in 1975, one year after his establishing the Royal Commission on Intelligence and Security which served to investigate ASIO’s activities, condemning many and leading to reforms, and their strong links to ASIO, it seems odd that two prominent Labour politicians who had spoken out against the organisation were removed from power so soon after their criticism of the security organisation.

In the senate today, George Brandis refused to comment on the allegations that the secretary of his department conveyed an offer of a specific role to Gillian Triggs at their meeting in Sydney on the 3rd of February, telling parliament that “There is nothing more to say.”

Whether the Attorney General is telling the truth remains to be seen, and with secrecy in the Coalition at an all time high, one thing we can be sure of is that gathering reliable information on the internal affairs of our government will be painfully hard for anyone outside of the party itself.

Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison, two likely candidates for the Prime Minister’s role should leadership concerns continue, have allegedly been using Wickr, an app which allows “private, encrypted and self destructing data” to be electronically shredded to leave no trace of messages, to communicate to one another over the last few weeks.

The irony of the situation is palpable, and a perfect demonstration of the hypocrisy in those who routinely ask us to surrender our privacy for our own safety.

If the ministers have nothing to fear, why are they hiding?

A bipartisan report released on Friday backed the government’s proposed data retention scheme, but demanded more certainty about the customer details that would be stored and the agencies that would be permitted access.

Although the report was tabled in the House of Reps, apart from the Chair, Deputy Chair and the Government Whip, no extra debate was permitted.

The lack of debate on a piece of legislation which, if passed, will undermine the basic right to privacy of every Australian citizen seems to be contrived in the interests of opacity. I believe the only honest, reasonable way forward with regards to metadata retention and the broader role of government surveillance in the lives of the citizenry is total transparency.

There must be a national debate on the issue of surveillance and privacy, and in order for the conversation to be meaningful, the public must have access to information that concerns them, namely the agencies responsible for collecting data on the public, the systems, programs and techniques used to do so, the timeframe of these activities and details as to the involvement of foreign states in assisting and overseeing these activities.

Pudgy Figures and Figures Fudged: George Brandis, Education Reforms and the Penal System

Figures used to produce secret government modelling on university fees were “invented by department officials” according to the education department’s associate secretary, Robert Griew.

“In each case, while presented as assumed facts and informed by departmental analysis and research, these figures were essentially invented by departmental officials for the purpose of providing material for analysis based on assumed patterns of behaviour,” he wrote.

The government did not want to release documents detailing the impact of deregulation on regional higher education and the potential cost of cuts on individual institutions.

While largely unsurprising, this is another example of failure to live up to even the most basic forms of transparency and accountability by the Liberal government. A few questions that need answering:

Why were the figures invented rather than being based on actual data?

How does invented data provide a reliable and accurate set of prediction on which we can model changes to the education system?

Why were the documents relating to the impacts and potential costs of these reforms not available to the public, whom they affect, for review?

Answers to these questions would be a step in the right direction for our Prime Minister, whose actions of late have landed him in hot water not just with the electorate but also with many of his own party members, as evidenced by the spill several weeks ago.

The ABC and the Seven network have both reported that Malcolm Turnbull has been advised that he has the numbers to slide into the top job without much turbulence. Whether this is wish-thinking on the behalf of the source and/or the networks remains to be seen. Turnbull himself refused to comment on the issue, telling reporters that he’s “a member of parliament… I’ll leave [the press] to speculate about all that stuff.”

And speculate we will.

If Turnbull does move up the ladder in the Liberal Party, he’ll certainly have his work cut out for him. Dealing with a large body of people at the best of times is difficult to say the least, dealing with a party of strong minded ideologues, most of whom fall almost entirely to the right of the political spectrum, is likely to be a management nightmare. If Turnbull can elicit some sense of collegiality within the party, and force compromise out of some of the more extreme members, we may see a turn around in the party. He has already made statements defending Gillian Triggs after her vilification by fellow party members, and seems to support a push for more transparency around sources of funding and internal activities in general. At the very least, if Turnbull becomes Prime Minister we can wave goodbye to the madness the pious Roman Catholic reminiscer extraordinaire has wrought on this country over the last two years.

Another interesting piece of information the government would rather keep hidden away from the public eye is the apparent failure of the Australian Bureau of Statistics to accurately report the amount of prisoners in the penal system. The ABS records only the number and characteristics of people in custody on a single day – 30th June – each year.

This is despite more than $3bn being funnelled into the system per annum.

Without accurate data showing the demographics of prisoners, their behaviour, length of imprisonment, whether they are first time or repeat offenders, what socio-economic and lifestyle factors contributed to their incarceration and so on, it seems unlikely that any improvement can be made in the system. It is essentially being run blind.

If reforms need to be made in any area of our society, surely the penal system is a prime candidate. Countries like Norway have implemented rehabilitation oriented systems of incarceration, lowering recidivism rates to just 16% in some areas, as opposed to 38% according to “SCRGS 2006. Report on government services 2005”, the results of which were published in this study on recidivism by the Australian Institute of Criminology. Rather than following the predictable and tired governmental response of “doing it our way”, perhaps we can adopt a humble attitude and admit that we have much to learn from the successes of other nations.

George Brandis has come under fire from ex- Human Rights Commissioner Graeme Innes, who stated in this article written for The Guardian, “I was a human rights commissioner under five attorneys-general from both sides of politics, Brandis [has been] the only one to question my integrity.”

Staffers for Brandis apparently berated Innes for his criticism of retail giant Myer’s CEO Bernie Brooks, who had made comments disparaging the National Disability Insurance Scheme, stating that the money that was earmarked for the project “could have gone through [his] cash registers.” In addition to the callousness of the comment, having previously worked for Myer and being privy to the internal culture there I find that scenario highly unlikely.

Innes went on to say that “Part of our democratic system, and the rule of law, provides that a key duty of any attorney general is to defend judges and statutory officers doing their jobs, because they are not in a position to easily defend themselves. Far from defending, Brandis has attacked. It is he who has made the serious error of judgement. He has “shot the messenger”. Triggs has advocated human rights compliance by Australia – she has done her job.”

Along with his support for mandatory metadata retention, a program which has been slammed in courts across the EU for being a serious threat to human rights and the privacy of citizens, these revelations paint a picture of Brandis as being wholly unconcerned with fulfilling the role he is employed to, seeming instead to be more focused on supporting schemes to expand the influence and control of the state in the lives of every-day Australians.

It is for this very reason we are in desperate need of transparency when it comes to funding and the internal activities and correspondence of our elected officials. We cannot afford to turn a blind eye to the monetary forces and concealed influences that shape policy in this country. Urgent reforms in this area are not only important, but necessary for the country to progress and grow into the exponentially increasing complexity of the digital age.

I had to cut todays update short due to time constraints, so some important information was omitted. Rest assured, I’ll be publishing a more extensive review of current affairs in Australian politics tomorrow, but until then, have a wonderful night friends.

The Higginson Leaks: Who’s Really Funding Our Political Parties?

New leaked documents from the office of Phillip Higginson, the Federal Treasurer, seem to indicate that the Liberal Party of Australia may have been receiving donations of a “million pounds Sterling” and up to “several tens of millions of US dollars” from “within the USA”, with the Treasurer stating that he “can now quite confidently ask individuals and their advisors for a donation”.

A few questions immediately spring to mind. If there are donations from overseas, are they being disclosed transparently? If so, is it healthy for our democracy to be influenced by foreign money? Does this phenomena cover both sides of the political spectrum?

It seems fairly obvious from Higginson’s letters that this information was not intended to come to the awareness of the public. In closing the first of his letters, sent on February 22nd of this year, he asks his colleagues to keep the contents of the letters within the party.

“I do hope the recipients will respect my privacy and treat [this] letter with the utmost confidentiality, and debate it only internally. It will serve little purpose to hang out our dirty linen.

What exactly is the “dirty linen” being referred to? From the Treasurer’s comments about asking for party donations from foreign interests, it seems likely that the statement is indicative of this international involvement in the funding of the Liberal Party. Whether he is referring to this case only as “dirty linen”, or whether that comment is indicative of a broader corruption within the party’s funding remains to be seen.

We know that donations to the Liberal Party were more than four times the amount given to the Labor Party in 2012-13, and with more interested parties one can surmise that the potential for ideological interference in government from donors would likely be concurrently higher.

This seems to be reflected in the sources of Liberal Party funding from our own backyard. Donors to the party in the period of 2011-12 include British American Tobacco, with a donation of $12,000, Roslyn Packer, widow of Kerry Packer, whose company owned a controlling interest in Channel Nine, who donated a huge sum of $580,000, shareholders in The Age, DSAH Holdings, who donated $55,000, and Mineralogy Pty Ltd, a mining company owned by the then Liberal Party supporter Clive Palmer, who donated a total of $203,700.

These, along with a long list of additional donors, seem to indicate a strong vested interest from conservative media outlets and big business. It is then little wonder that the governments policies reflect a sympathy for right-wing conservative values and the interests of oligarchs.

In May, 2006, the Howard Government increased the disclosure threshold for political donations from $1,500 to $10,000. Upon announcing the laws, the administration at the time stated that they would result in a “fairer” and “more competitive” electoral system, however, failed to discuss how the changes achieved these goals.

Critics of the change claimed the new laws would increase the chances of corruption, by making political donations harder to track, and by making conflicts of interest harder to detect.

As evidence for this, Senator Kerry Nettle pointed to a $92,400 donation from defence company Tenix, which used former defence minister Peter Reith as a consultant, and Tenix being awarded a $920 million government contract. Tenix’s funding on both sides of the political spectrum goes back at least as far as 1998, as shown in this inquiry into political funding from the House Committee.

The change allowed corporations to secretly donate up to $90,000 spread across the national and the eight state/territory branches of political parties without public disclosure of that funding.

Since 2006, the threshold has increased two or three hundred dollars per annum (adjusted for inflation) so that by 2014 the threshold was $12,400, and up to $111,600 can be received by political parties from each donor (spread across the national and state/territory branches) without a need for disclosure.

Despite the Australian Electoral Commission annually publishing a list of political donors, it is often difficult to ascertain who made the donation, as it is not uncommon for political parties to use “associated entities” as front organisations to hide the source of the donations.

Front organisations such as the Cormack Foundation and John Curtin House Limited provide individuals and corporations with a means of passing funds to the major parties anonymously. Under the current electoral act, these organisations are not required to disclose where the donations came from. Associated entities have become huge political donors in Australia, in 2003-2004 donating $72.6 million to political parties.

It seems that if foreign money is being paid to local political parties, that the economic and political goals of foreign states may be being unfairly represented in Australian politics. If that is the case, we may see decisions being made based not on what is best for Australians, but rather what is best for Washington or London.

As for local donations, it would appear that donors money has been helping businesses to secure lucrative government contracts at the very least. Corporations are not required to adhere to the same standards of transparency as government under the law, and as such the ability of Australians to hold any employees who may be involved in corrupt activity with the government accountable for their actions doesn’t seem to be clearly defined. Citizens may find it exceedingly difficult under current legislation to trace the ideologies and world views of those financing their chosen party, or for that matter, to know who these individuals are.

So how much of the funding for our major political parties can be traced to international donors? There seems to be no avenue for civilian inquiry into the matter, a situation that should raise red flags in even the most die-hard supporters of both parties.

Democratic governance, in order to function as a truly democratic process, requires an informed citizenry. If our citizenry is not able to freely access information about potential conflicts of interest in their elected parties, to understand in objective terms the amount and source of funding given, then we cannot claim to be a democracy in any real sense of the word.

Scott Morrison, Gillian Triggs and Profit, Profit, Profit

“Unless there is major structural change that is made to our welfare system over the next decade and beyond, over a generation, our social services expenditure will swallow the budget.”

  • Scott Morrison, Wednesday 25th February, 2015

For once, Scott Morrison and I seem to agree, although I’m sure that his idea of “major structural change” is plenty different to my own.

What seems to be the focus of the press conference being held today with our Social Services Minister is the notion that our expenditure on welfare is somehow unsustainable or even dangerous to our future prosperity.

In my recent article on Basic Income and Australian Welfare, I pointed out that Australia ranks 25th out of 30 OECD countries in terms of welfare spending, despite many of those countries experiencing far tougher economic situations than our own. This disparity between our ability to provide basic service for those in need and the willingness of our government to do so I believe highlights a serious problem within the leadership of this country.

A severe lack of empathy coupled with an economic consciousness that seems to have been grown in the vacuum chamber of Liberal party ideological round-tables is a terrifying prospect for the many thousands of disabled, elderly and poverty-stricken Australians these proposed cutbacks to social security will affect.

It has been shown time and again that spending on the poorest areas of a society is one of the fastest and most secure ways to eradicate the vast majority of crime, domestic abuse and mental health issues in a population. Many of our endemic social issues are directly related to the existential insecurities poverty brings about in the human psyche, and on a purely economic basis I would put it to anyone undecided about welfare spending that a healthy, sane citizenry is far more capable and likely to produce profit than a sick, mad one.

The likelihood of honest, mature discussion about this situation with the Minister for Social Security seems low, with Morrison stating today that “every measure that’s on the table in the Senate remains on the table.  I want to be really clear about that and if someone wants me to take one of those measures off I’m going to put something else on because the rules are the same for other members of parliament as they are for the government. The budget needs repair.”

For more information on the welfare system and a possible alternative to the punitive measure proposed by the Coalition government, head over to my recent article on the subject.

President of the Human Rights Committee Gillian Triggs has come under fire from the government for the “Forgotten Children” report into the plight of young persons in our detention camps. Triggs has confirmed that the government sought her resignation from the HRC, commenting that the inducement, which included an offer for “other work” by attorney general George Brandis, was a “disgraceful proposal” .

The government appears to be taking a strategy of ruthless aggression towards any individual bringing factual information to light that demonstrates their failings. The sheer wastefulness of such a partisan  approach is highlighted in committee chair Ian McDonald’s comments yesterday, which confirmed that though he is more than comfortable attacking Gillian Triggs over the report, he hasn’t even bothered to read it himself: “I haven’t bothered to read the final report because I think it is partisan.”

Ironic indeed coming from a member so partisan he cannot bring himself to so much as consider an opposing viewpoint.

This “hardline” approach is a disservice to the Australian people, making what should be a reasoned and informed exchange of information between mature adults resemble the squabbling and clique politics of a high-school canteen.

It is clear that maturity and a truly non-partisan attitude from our elected officials will not simply spring up on its own. We must demand these traits from our elected officials if we are to bring the power of the democratic system to bear on the issues that need it the most, namely the treatment of our fellow human beings.

If we read between the lines, we can see that the Coalition’s attitude towards its citizenry is not one of respect or compassion. The main talking point throughout all of our current big ticket issues, from terrorism to social security to human rights, is cost. How much will it cost the taxpayer?

It is becoming clearer by the day that, as a people, we are in need of a government that prioritises people. Profit is all well and good for those who stand to benefit from it, but for the vast majority of us who do not occupy positions of prestige and power, we are keenly aware that the millions stuffing the pockets of Gina Rinehart and Rupert Murdoch are millions we could desperately use.

It is simply not good enough to run a government based overwhelmingly on the pursuit and hoarding of money.

The failing of such a narrow view is that it does not take into account costs that cannot be represented quantitatively. The human cost of tightening the valve on social security is immense, with many people facing homelessness, starvation and possibly even death under the new legislation. Many more will find themselves marginalised because their particular brand of suffering is not “serious enough” to warrant taxpayer funding.

The fear and desperation felt by many people on social security is something I’m all too familiar with. It tears apart families, breaks relationships and worsens mental illness and fatigue. These problems are manifest in the rates of domestic violence and petty crime in our lower socio-economic areas.

Is this not the very kind of situation where empathy and a basic respect for human life is needed most? Surely, 25th out of 30 OECD countries in welfare spending, we can afford to invest in our brothers, sisters, cousins, colleagues, teachers, friends?

If we look at the real costs of poverty, I’d say we can’t afford not to.

New “Anti-Terror” Legislation Undermines Basic Human Rights

Yesterday Australians were once again asked to swallow a weakening of our civil rights masquerading as a safety measure.

Amidst the broken record appeals to a dangerous external threat to the nation in the form of the “death cult” Islamic State, prime minister Tony Abbott introduced the idea that Australians could benefit from the creation of a new, “flexible” department dedicated to preventing terrorism.

Such a department could oversee all existing forms of law enforcement in the nation, including ASIO and the AFP.

The likelihood of corruption under such a model seems unreasonably high. If one organisation within the government has regulatory powers over our systems of mass surveillance in addition to the highest levels of law enforcement, and that department is expressly dedicated to stamping out “terrorism”, it would not be unthinkable that such a department could quickly fall into the role of aggressively quashing political dissent.

The means of doing so at the disposal of such a department would be further reaching and far more pervasive than even the Stasi could have hoped for, with current programs within ASIO allowing agents to access the email records, phone calls and online chat activities of citizens, along with their associated metadata. It would be trivial for such an organisation to imprison political activists, and under new legislation journalists would be unable to report on any such abuses, facing up to ten years imprisonment.

There is a proposed mechanism of accountability in all of this, which would supposedly feature the commonwealth ombudsman, Colin Neave, as having oversight over the way metadata is collected and used. This is out of step with statements made to The Guardian Australia by Neave himself that his office would not play a formal oversight role in the scheme and would give advice only at the attorney general’s discretion.

Citing a report commissioned by his own government, Abbott voiced his support for the measure, along with a review of the current terrorism alert system and new strategies to counter violent extremism.

These strategies do not, according to the governments own report, which you can find here, extend to a review of the systems and departments already in place, despite enormous public backlash following the revelations of Australia’s involvement in the Five Eyes surveillance network, a global dragnet coalition comprised of the security agencies of Canada, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Australia and the United States.

The report does state, however, that there is a need to employ “increasingly intrusive and sophisticated monitoring measures”, citing the disclosure of classified documents by Edward Snowden as a causal factor in the need to broaden the scope and power of local security agencies. This does not seem to reflect rulings by the Court of Justice in the EU, which called metadata retention, part of the proposed extensions to security agency powers, a “wide ranging and particularly serious interference” with the fundamental rights to respect for privacy and the protection of personal data.

Nor does it reflect the data collected on the efficacy of such programs. A report by the New America Foundation, available here, states that “an in-depth analysis of 225 individuals recruited by al-Qaeda or a like-minded group or inspired by al-Qaeda’s ideology, and charged in the United States with an act of terrorism since 9/11, demonstrates that traditional investigative methods, such as the use of informants, tips from local communities, and targeted intelligence operations, provided the initial impetus for investigations in the majority of cases, while the contribution of NSA’s bulk surveillance programs to these cases was minimal. “

The report seems to recognise this in a round about way, even if it does not take into account the implications therein, stating in a few different ways that lone terrorist attacks by people who don’t use telephones or the internet in planning and executing their activities are nigh on impossible to detect and most likely cannot be prevented.

In summary, it seems that the government is relying on the tried and true methods of fascist administrations throughout our history, that is, painting a picture of an external threat that poses grave danger to our citizens, if, and only if, it is not kept at bay by ever increasing state power.

This rhetoric is too tired and worn to allay the fears of any critically minded individual, and is blatantly out of step with the actual, measurable severity of the threat of terrorism to Australians.

The Coalition is trailing once again in the polls, at 47% according to a poll published in the Australian newspaper on Tuesday, and it is beginning to become transparent to most Australians that these proposed measures are little more than desperate vote grabbing by an incompetent government of ideologues, interested solely in their own continued employment.