Personal Reflections

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Confusions over political correctness

This, the first of a series of short follow up posts I foreshadowed in Monday Forum - is modern political discourse just sound and fury signifying nothing?, looks at political correctness. It is a term I have used. Broadly, I know what I mean, but it is a confusing term that adds to the sound and fury that that marks today’s public discourse, a sound and fury that distracts from real discussion. Political correctness or PC has become a symbol of dividing views, one used to lambaste opponents.

This first cartoon shows one side’s view on the debate.

The Wikipedia article on political correctness provides a reasonably good overview of the history the term. Modern political usage is quite new, dating back to the 1990s. But what is political correctness? 

To try to clarify this, I have gathered together a number of definitions:


Wikipedia: the avoidance of forms of expression or action that are perceived to exclude, marginalize, or insult groups of people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against.

Merriam Webster: conforming to a belief that language and practices which could offend political sensibilities (as in matters of sex or race) should be eliminated.

Cambridge: Someone who is politically correct believes that language and actions that could be offensive to others, especially those relating to sex and race, should be avoided. A politically correct word or expression is used instead of another one to avoid being offensive:

Collins politically correct in British: demonstrating progressive ideals, especially by avoiding vocabulary that is considered offensive, discriminatory, or judgmental, especially  concerning race and gender

Collins politically correct in American: conforming or adhering to what is regarded as orthodox liberal opinion on matters of sexuality, race, etc.: usually used disparagingly to connote dogmatism, excessive sensitivity to minority causes, etc.

Oxford: The avoidance of forms of expression or action that are perceived to exclude, marginalize, or insult groups of people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against. marked by or adhering to a typically progressive orthodoxy on issues involving especially ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or ecology:

This cartoon shows a second view of the PC debate.


If you look at these various definitions, you can see what a minefield political correctness is. The first cartoon shows a left perspective, the second one from the right. 

As I said earlier, PC has become a symbol that marks a variety of underlying divides, The term has been especially helpful to the right because they have been able to attach a variety of concerns to it linked to social, cultural and economic change, to shifting power structures in society. The left has responded in turn, with both sides using stereotypes. The result is battle marked by heat, but very little content. 

This is a pity, for there are genuine issues in the debate that need to be explored in their own right. I will look at some of these as part of this series.  

Monday, August 21, 2017

Monday Forum - is modern political discourse just sound and fury signifying nothing?

So many things have been happening! I have had to tear up (can one use that word today in a more paperless word? Perhaps metaphorically) a number of posts because of event swamping. For that reason, today is both a meander and a Monday Forum post. I'm sorry if it's also a little sad. I'm sorry, too, if it's a little confused. But I am weary, bone weary.

In today's post I’m really a conservative…, a title that surprised me, Neil Whitfield suggested that he was a real conservative as compared to some of those masquerading as conservative today. I wouldn't have called Neil a conservative, but perhaps he is. If so, he is a social liberal if also something (as he notes) of a follower of Edmund Burke. I note that while Burke is often claimed to be the founder of modern conservatism, he was also a radical in terms of his time. But Neil is indeed a conservative in the sense that he believes in discussion, is suspicious of ideology and wishes to conserve the good in society, the structure, while preventing tyranny and making improvements that will preserve liberties and freedom of choice.

Over on My Observations, AC has expressed deep reservations about the attempts by the current Polish Law and Justice Government to rewrite Poland in its desired conservative and law and order image, AC is not a revolutionary. Based  on her writing, I think that she is a liberal conservative who wishes to conserve the gains made following the end of communism, the creation of a free society. She objects to a Law and Justice agenda that while masquerading as conservative is deeply nationalist and reactionary and wants to turn Poland back to an age that never really existed. More precisely, it wants to recreate Poland in a way that mirrors its own social dictates. So did Adolf Hitler in Germany.

Here in Australia, we have caught between the ideologues of left and right. The left masquerades as progressive, the right masquerades as conservative, their operatives work for political gain using and misusing issues, tarnishing by assertion and association. Both are manipulated by those whose ultimate objective is political power. Commentary masquerades as reporting to the point people turn off. There is little scope for objective reporting, less for discussion of the issues.

This creates a feeling of despair in someone like me who feels obliged to read the feeds but actually wants to learn.

It is hard to avoid getting sucked in to this malaise. I have watched people whose support for particular issues or cause has progressively twisted their feeds over time into broader partisan positions to the point that they automatically tweet or retweet only those things that might discredit opponents or support an issue or position. I have seen a friend who I greatly like and respect tweet or retweet attacks on particular issues or initiatives that I know he would have agreed with because they are sponsored by someone my friend disagrees with.

Within this bubble effect, self-sustaining worlds are created that bear little resemblance to reality. Here I see little difference between Mr Trump and some of the left status quo, little difference between the Secular Party of Australia, Get-up, Australia's Christian Lobby, One Nation's view on Muslims and some of the environmental lobby. They all deal with absolutes that are (in their minds) absolutely right.

There is little space left in all this for actual discussion of issues, for modification of positions, for compromises or at least a clear delineation of the differences between the sides. I am not saying that one should not be passionate about positions. Change does not happen without the combination of passion and persistence. I am saying that change is easier if you are aware of other positions and are prepared to engage and to counter.

So much of what passes for current discourse is sound and fury signifying nothing. It may in the end tear things down, but it leaves nothing in its place beyond a base for more sounds and fury. I will follow up this post with some examples to show what I mean, to sketch alternative approaches.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Australian same sex marriage - hopefully, we can get the postal vote done

In many ways, I find the debate over gay marriage confused and confusing. Reading the media coverage, the commentary, the twitter feeds from both, sides leaves me feeling that there is a fair bit of cant, bigotry and political hypocrisy in all this, one that mixes together various issues to achieve particular ends. I include Mr Shorten in this charge, as well as the Greens.

As you might expect, I intend to vote yes in this postal ballot. I do so for a mix of practical and ideological reasons. Before outlining them, the Wikipedia piece on the recent history of the same sex marriage debate provides useful background.

In earlier discussion on this blog, commenters suggested that one solution to the same sex marriage question was to remove the state from marriage as such. Marriage would become a ceremonial activity, with the state role limited to practical regulation of associated matters, thus creating a clear distinction between the two.

While I can see force in this argument, I can also see two problems. The first is that the Australian constitution gives the Commonwealth power over marriage, while civil unions fall to the states, creating a risk of differential treatment. The second is the way that marriage as such is recognised internationally. Problems arise if you have two distinct systems in one country in gaining recognition in other countries.

Despite these problems, I can still see real advantages in recognising the differences between what we might think of as the legal and contractual issues associated with marriage and the ceremonial and personal aspects, including any religious aspects. Under this system, the core role of the state would would be the registration of marriages, with all other aspects falling to the personal domain. The role of the marriage celebrant would lie strictly within the personal domain, although it might include assisting the couple to lodge the paper work as an ancillary activity. Registration of marriage celebrants could be abolished, freedom of choice and indeed freedom of religion maximised.

This type of change requires a sensible national conversation that may not be possible within the bounds set by current discussion. However, it does influence my thinking.

As I see it, the present system of marriage is unfair on two grounds. It denies certain couples who wish to enter into a long term binding relationship access to the full civil protections, rights and obligations of marriage, effectively creating a two tier system. It also denies them the right to call themselves and present themselves as married, something that hurts. Both are hard to justify.    

I said that I felt that there was a fair bit of cant, bigotry and political hypocrisy in the debate, one that mixes together various issues to achieve particular ends and that left me confused. I will try to illustrate this.

Consider the question of a plebiscite. Same sex marriage is a genuinely difficult issue for the Coalition, an issue made more difficult because of the way we have mixed together associated  questions about the role of marriage.The decision to opt for a non binding plebiscite by the Abbott Coalition Government in August 2015 reflected differences in the party rooms about how to manage the question. Some may have wanted to kick it down the road, others saw it as providing a justification to vote in a particular way where they or their electorates had real reservations. If the people show support, I can go with this.

This decision was taken to the electorate as policy in the election held on 2 July 2016. In September 2016, Prime Minister Turnbull introduced legislation to provide for a plebiscite to be held on 11 February 2017. This was defeated in the Senate, with the matter to be put aside until after the next election. Agitation continued, creating a split in the Coalition with some members wanting to introduce another marriage equality bill, the twenty second, into Parliament.

On 7 August 2017, the Joint Coalition Party Room decided to resubmit the plebiscite legislation and then,. if that was defeated, to go for voluntary postal survey via Australia Post postal mail run by the Australian Bureau of of Statistics. Ballots would be mailed out to Australian voters from 12 September and would be required to be mailed back by 7 November, with a result expected no later than 15 November 2017. If the postal vote returned a majority 'yes' verdict, the government would facilitate a private member's bill in the final sitting fortnight of the parliamentary year which would legalise same-sex marriage  This approach is now being challenged in the High Court.    

Those who  opposed the plebiscite did so using a variety of stated reasons: Parliament should decide; a plebiscite is a waste of money;  a plebiscite will inflame divisions. There was a fear that a plebiscite might deliver a no vote, whereas a free vote in Parliament would now deliver a yes because of shifts in views in recent years.

There were genuine beliefs and arguments in all this, but I am left with the very uncomfortable feeling that the combination of purism with a desire to wedge the Government for political reasons were dominant. Had the plebiscite legislation been passed, we would had a popular vote in February. Now we have what many think of as a second class vote that will give us a result in November. If the postal vote is defeated in the High Court as seems quite possible, then either the matter will be deferred till after the next election or, and this is the hope of advocates, the Coalition will split, forcing the introduction of a private members bill. This would probably pass, but may not.

One stated aim of those who opposed the plebiscite on the grounds that we needed to avoid a hurtful and divisive debate has, I think, achieved the opposite effect  If the postal vote is defeated in the High Court as I fear it may be, then the matter may drag on for several years.

One of the real problems in all this, apart from the hurt caused to particular individuals, lies in the way it allows time for the issue to become increasingly divisive, not just in terms of same sex marriage but the broader social divides of which this issue is a part. I just hope that we can get through the postal vote, win and move on.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Why Barnaby Joyce may not be a dual citizen under Australian law

The tag on this tweet from @MrJoshEarl on Twitter reads "Oh Barnaby Joyce, if only there were signs."

The Joyce case has had some unexpected effects. Constitutional export Anne Twomey has told @ABCNews that in looking at the Barnaby Joyce case, she discovered that she was a New Zealand citizen.

I looked at the evolving problem on 18 July in Senators Ludlum, Waters and the emerging Section 44(i) mess. There I said in part:
The Constitution was passed as an Act of the British Parliament in 1900. This was a very different world, one of Empire and emerging Commonwealth. As you can see from the Wikipedia article on Australian nationality law, concepts of citizenship have evolved, as has the definition of a foreign power. In 1900, it would have been seen as inconceivable that Canada or New Zealand could or would be classified as foreign powers for the purpose of Section 44(i) as compared to, say, the United States or Germany. When Canberra founder King O'Malley, for example, wanted to run for Parliament, he appears to have changed his birthplace from the US to Canada so that he was not precluded by Section 44(i). 
The problem now can be simply put: something like 28% of the Australian population was born overseas, while almost 50% of the Australian population has one parent born overseas. Perhaps as many as 4.5 million Australians are or may be eligible for dual citizenship depending on the laws in the other country and hence not be eligible to stand for the Australian Parliament on a strict interpretation of the wording of Section 44(i).
Consider my own case as someone who has run for preselection for Federal Parliament. At the time I ran, I was eligible to apply for both British and New Zealand passports, to become a citizen of those countries. Indeed, my family later pushed me to apply for a British passport while I still could because of then EU access. Was I therefore ineligible to stand for Parliament?
At the time I ran, the questions now swirling around S44 had yet to emerge. Nobody would have challenged my right to run just because I might have been able to apply for a UK or New Zealand passport. Track forward. Had I run and stayed in Parliament, then changing interpretations would likely have invalidated my membership.

Barnaby Joyce's father came to Australia in 1947 as a vet science student..My father came in 1938 as a university lecturer..In Australia, Barnaby's father met his Australian wife to be while studying, my father met his wife to be because she was in charge of the library at the New England University College. Both married and stayed. Barnaby was born in Australia in 1967. I was also born in Australia, if somewhat earlier.

On the surface, the advice from New Zealand Prime Minister Bill English that Barnaby Joyce was a New Zealand citizen for the purposes of New Zealand law citizen means that I am too. Mind you, in my case I do not necessarily object. I am very fond of New Zealand and quite like the idea of being citizen of both countries. I also thought that If I am a New Zealand citizen, then my daughters may be able to acquire citizenship too. That might create problems if they were to run for the Australian Parliament, but (as eldest said) they could always renounce an New Zealand rights should they wish to do that.

Interest aroused, I did a bit of checking to try to determine what my rights were. This proved more complicated than I expected because of changes in New Zealand law over time. As best I can work out, the position is this:
  • I am entitled to New Zealand citizenship and a passport by right of descent. 
  • To obtain registration as a citizen, I must fill out a form and provide supporting documentation to prove that I am eligible for registration. Once that eligibility is proved, then registration is automatic
  • If I register as an NZ citizen, it does not give my daughters automatic rights as an NZ citizen. They have to go through other hoops, including five years' residency.Damn!
In these cases, it is always important to look at the facts, especially when dealing with hyper-ventilating Canberra. I do not pretend to be either a lawyer or an expert on New Zealand law. My Joyce appears clearly entitled to register as a New Zealand citizen and obtain a New Zealand passport, but does that make him a New Zealand citizen as Mr English claims?  I would have thought not, at least so far as Australian law is concerned. To be a registered New Zealand citizen, he must both apply and prove that he is entitled to be so classified. He has not done that. Until he does so, his New Zealand citizenship is purely notional.

If the High Court were to accept this position, they would still have to deal with the entitlement part of clause 44(i).

Its all become a bit of a nonsense. For my part, I plan to follow up with both the UK and New Zealand authorities to determine what my position is. It's interesting. I haven't looked at the demography, but at a rough guess at least 500,000 Australians may be eligible to apply for New Zealand passports.Perhaps we should.


Graeme Orr had a useful piece on The Conversation on the whole Section 44 matter, To the High Court we go: six MPs under clouds in decisions that could undermine the government.

Sunday, August 06, 2017

Women, babies and political power

The sudden election of Jacinda Ardern as leader of the New Zealand Labour Party in place of  Andrew Little just weeks before the next general election on 23 September 2017 caused some surprise. Labour had been lagging in the polls, but the move still seems to have been unexpected.

Under the New Zealand MMP (mixed-member proportional) electoral system, it is difficult for either major party to gain a majority, making coalition governments the norm. On the current opinion poll figures, either a National/NewZealand First or a Labour/New Zealand First/Green combination are technically possible. However, the higher the vote of the two major parties, the easier it is to form a coalition, giving the National Party a real advantage. Labour hopes that Ms Arden's appointment will give it a poll boost, narrowing the gap with the Nationals. I don't think that there has been a poll since Ms Ardern's appointment, but it appears to have given Labour a boost.

New Zealand politics is generally not well covered in Australia. However, in this case, the question of a possible future pregnancy for the 37 year old Ms Arden did generate coverage on this side of the ditch.

The issue arose when the host of The Project in New Zealand, Jesse Mulligan, asked Ms Ardern, who does not have children, whether she had to decide between having a career and becoming a parent. As reported by the ABC:
"Let me put it this way. A lot of women in New Zealand feel like they have to make a choice between having babies and having a career, or continuing their career at a certain point in their lives — late 30s." 
"Thank you for reminding the New Zealand public of my age," Ms Ardern interjected, to laughter. 
Mulligan continued: "Is that a decision that you feel you have to make, or that you feel that you've already made?"
The question generated a storm, one that I thought Ms Ardern has handled very well.

She said that she expected to be asked the question because she had previously discussed the issue in the context of choices and challenges for women,  including (I think) her own desire to have a child. As I interpret her response,  she and her partner Clarke Gayford would essentially take things as they come.

At the same time, while she was prepared to respond on an issue she had previously raised, she rounded on a radio show panellist Mark Richardson who is reported as saying that employers "need to know that type of thing from the women you are employing...The question is, is it OK for a PM to take maternity leave while in office?" .Ms Ardern said that while she had been prepared to respond,  for other women it was totally unacceptable in 2017 to say that women should have to answer that question in the workplace.

Mr Richardson reportedly then dug himself into a bigger hole: saying a potential employer had a right to know if they would have to let a staff member take "a year of leave.....I'm not saying don't employ that person". "Why would you ask if it wasn't going to prejudice your decision?", Ms Ardern responded.

Mr Richardson is a former cricketer turned TV presenter  who clearly holds some antediluvian views. Among other things, I think that it would be illegal in New Zealand as well as Australia for an employer to actually ask that question. Stuff NZ reports on some of the responses to his remarks.

My mind went in a slightly different direction. I am not aware of cases, and this may just be lack of knowledge on my part, of elected female heads of state having babies while in office. However, there is one respected female profession where women have had babies while exercising considerable official political influence and indeed direct power and that is the role of Queen or Empress.

Queen Elizabeth the Second was queen when Prince Andrew was 1960. Queen Victoria had nine children while Queen. Empress Maria Theresa had no less than sixteen children while reforming the Hapsburg Empire, while Catherine the Great of Russia  managed to fit in multiple lovers and at least one illegitimate child while acting as authoritarian ruler.

I could give other examples. However, my simple and not especially profound point is that pregnancy of itself does not preclude a woman successfully occupying a top political position. Surely we can fit in at least one elected leader?            .

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Boredom with the Australian republic

I remain bogged down in other writing. My main post yesterday, The lessons and questions from Madjedbebe, was back on Australian prehistory. I hope to do better here in the future, but am not promising!

Mr Shorten has again raised the question of an Australian republic. We are to be asked:
"One question — do you support an Australian republic with an Australian head of state? 'Yes' or 'No'?" he said. 
How things change. When Prime Minister Keating launched his campaign for a republic I was very upset because it was part of what of what I saw as an ideological attack on a whole range of things. When Prime Minister Howard held the 1999 republic constitutional referendum I was engaged on the constitutional monarchy side. Now I am just bored.

At this point, I do not know what Mr Shorten's question means. A constitutional lawyer may need to advise. If we vote yes, I presume that the next question will be a vote on choices of different republican forms. Again, I'm not sure what that means. I'm assuming that if we vote yes on one, we are bound by the majority on two regardless of the absolute number that want that particular option. So we could end up with almost anything.

I haven't done a poll among my friends. Based on what I know, a majority would be pro-republic in an abstract sense, but none would seem to regard it as a key issue measured by their conversation. Those who are strongly republican seem to come from a relatively narrow slice, essentially particular age groups with Roman Catholic, Irish, Labor ancestry.  I am not sure about under thirty voters, nor about those from many ethnic backgrounds. I just don't know wide enough groups to be representative.

Mr Shorten may well win the next election. Until he does and then introduces the question, I see little point in getting engaged. As I said, I am bored with the issue. There are more important things to worry about.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Lovers and Luggers - in search of a pearl for a girl

Back in the seventies, the ABC had a series replaying Australian films from the industry's heyday prior to the Second World War. This was, I think, the only period in which the Australian film industry occupied a key local box office position. I would love to see the series repeated, although it maybe that our images of ourselves have shifted so much that the films would no longer resonate. If so, that's a pity.

One of the films I most enjoyed was Lovers and Luggers. Made for Cinesound  in 1937 by Ken Hall, the film tag read "Epic pearling adventure romance in glorious sun-splashed tropical settings of Thursday Island!", while the plot is described in these terms "A concert pianist, as concert pianists are wont to do, goes pearl diving in the South Seas to find a giant pearl for his girlfriend. He does, and that's when all the trouble begins."

The film is a romp sitting squarely in the middle of a number of past streams

As I remember it, the opening scenes show what used to be called a lounge lizard from the effete London focused side of the Empire clearly in need of redemption, thus playing to both Australian's images of themselves and of themselves in comparison to the English.

Then we have the tropic Pacific location, appealing to resonances of the Pacific as an exotic location and source of wealth. Then, too, we have pearls. By the time the film was made the pearl industry with its romance but also its horrors and dangers was in sharp decline. Still, it retained its fascination.

Pearls have gripped human imagination for thousands of years. They were worn in civilised Middle East and Asian societies as early as 3500 BCE and continued to grow in popularity during Roman times when pearl fever reached its peak. A pearl earring reportedly paid for one Roman general's political campaigns. Cleopatra dissolved a pearl in wine and drank it to prove her love to Marc Antonius.

When my daughter turned eighteen several thousand years later, her chosen present was a string of pearls. Her grandmother loved pearls too. For my part, as a gauche youth, I found those sophisticated country girls with their twin sets and pearls quite terrifying. It would be years before I realised that I was as nervous as them.

The book on which Lovers and Luggers was based was written by Gurney Slade, pen name of the English writer Stephen Bartlett, and was set in Broome where Bartlett had actually dived for pearls. Hall changed the location to Thursday Island because it made filming easier. As an aside, I found that some scenes were actually filmed at Port Stephens, so I have to add it to my growing list of films with New England connections.

Needless to say, pianist Daubeney Carshott (Lloyd Hughes) falls in love with and is redeemed by Lorna Quidley ( Shirley Ann Richards), the daughter of the boisterous Captain Quidley. It’s all very melodramatic, but rather fun. 

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Senators Ludlum, Waters and the emerging Section 44(i) mess

The sudden resignation from the Australia Senate of first Scott Ludlum and then Larissa Waters has further opened a constitutional can of worms. The two were joint deputy leaders of the Australian Greens in the Federal Parliament, both were young seasoned performers with considerable promise. Their resignations came about because they were found to be dual citizens and thus precluded from membership of the Australian Parliament under Section 44(i) of the Australian Constitution.

Born in New Zealand in 1970, Senator Ludlum came to Australia with his family when he was three. He became a naturalised Australian citizen in his teens and assumed that his New Zealand citizenship had lapsed as a consequence. It was Perth barrister Dr John Cameron who investigated New Zealand official records who found that Mr Ludlum was also still officially classified in New Zealand as a New Zealand citizen.

Born in Canada in 1977 to Australian parents, Larissa Waters came to Australia as a baby. When she found out about Sentaor Ludlum's status, she checked her own position only to find out that she, too, was technically a dual citizen and hence not eligible to serve in the Senate. She resigned as a consequence.

Section 44(i) of the Australian Constitution reads:
44. Any person who -
(i.) Is under any acknowledgement of allegiance, obedience, or adherence to a foreign power, or is a subject or a citizen or entitled to the rights or privileges of a subject or citizen of a foreign power:
shall be incapable of being chosen or of sitting as a senator or a member of the House of Representatives.
The Constitution was passed as an Act of the British Parliament in 1900. This was a very different world, one of Empire and emerging Commonwealth. As you can see from the Wikipedia article on Australian nationality law, concepts of citizenship have evolved, as has the definition of a foreign power. In 1900, it would have been seen as inconceivable that Canada or New Zealand could or would be classified as foreign powers for the purpose of Section 44(i) as compared to, say, the United States or Germany. When Canberra founder King O'Malley, for example, wanted to run for Parliament, he appears to have changed his birthplace from the US to Canada so that he was not precluded by Section 44(i).

The problem now can be simply put: something like 28% of the Australian population was born overseas, while almost 50% of the Australian population has one parent born overseas. Perhaps as many as 4.5 million Australians are or may be eligible for dual citizenship depending on the laws in the other country and hence not be eligible to stand for the Australian Parliament on a strict interpretation of the wording of Section 44(i).
Consider my own case as someone who has run for preselection for Federal Parliament. At the time I ran, I was eligible to apply for both British and New Zealand passports, to become a citizen of those countries. Indeed, my family later pushed me to apply for a British passport while I still could because of then EU access. Was I therefore ineligible to stand for Parliament?
One of the arguments in the current debate is that people should renounce their alternative citizenships and that they have only themselves to blame if they have not done so. There are a number of problems with this argument. You have to know exactly what your position is. Further, you have to be able to do so in some meaningful way given the laws of the other country. This actually makes membership of the Australian Parliament dependent on other countries' changing laws, something of an absurdity.

To take an extreme case, say the Irish Parliament changed its laws so that every person of Irish ancestry had an automatic right to apply for and be awarded Irish citizenship. On a strict reading of 44(i), that could immediately disqualify many of our current Parliamentarians. Perhaps a more relevant example is Israel's Law of Return that gives Jewish people an automatic right to Israeli citizenship. Are we therefore to exclude all Jews from the Australian Parliament?

A fair bit of point scoring from all sides has gone on around  the question of  Section 44 as they seek to use it for immediate political advantage. At a low level, this includes Mr Turnbull's comment on Senator Ludlum:
 "Obviously Senator Ludlam's oversight is a pretty remarkable one when you think about it - he's been in the Senate for so long," Mr Turnbull said. 
"Anyway, there it is, he's ineligible, and so there'll have to be, I assume, a countback ordered by the High Court to produce a replacement for him."  .
Maybe that's fair, but it ignores the way this issue has been developing and the implications it has for the operations of Parliament. Do we really want to place ourselves in the position that more than 25% of the Australian electorate may be excluded from running for Parliament?

In the end, it comes back to the High Court and the way it might interpret Section 44(i) in the light of current events. Perhaps Dr Cameron as a concerned citizen who has already brought down two Senators might consider doing a Bryan Pape and taking a citizen's case to the High Court. I, for one, would like to know just how that clause might be interpreted so that we know who is actually eligible to run.  

Postscript later on 18 July

Interesting piece by Amy Remeikis and Eryk Bagshawin the Brisbane Times: Greens senator Larissa Waters resignation triggers wave of MPs declaring Australian allegiance. Settled one issue to begin with. Tony Abbott renounced his British citizenship before entering Parliament. On Ms Waters:
Senator Waters, who was born to Australian parents studying in Winnipeg, said she had been assured as a teenager that she needed to "opt-in" for Canadian citizenship by her 21st birthday, an option she declined after not visiting the country since she was 11 months old. 
But her lawyers this week revealed that while Canada had changed its citizenship laws to the opt-in model in 1977, the year Senator Waters was born, it did not take effect until the week after her birth and she was automatically a citizen. 
An update too on ABC, including information that it cost Senator Sam Dastyari $25,000 giving up his Iranian citizenship cost $25,000 and involved two teams of lawyers — one from Australia and one in Iran.

It all remains a bit of a mess.

Postscript still later 18 July

I had not seen this High Court Decision that bears upon the application of Section 44. Recorded for later reference.

Update 26 July 2017

Section 44(i) of the Australian Constitution continues to create problems with the resignation (and here, here, here, here) from the ministry of National Party Senator Matt Canavan.

Senator Canavan was born in Australia and has never been to Italy. However, it appears that Senator Canavan's mother included him in her 2006 application to become an Italian citizen, making him a dual citizen without his knowledge. Senator Canavan has not resigned from the Senate at this point. Instead, the Government will test the matter in the High Court,.seeking to clarify the interpretation of Section 44(i).

For those who are interested, there is quite an interesting discussion on the Melbourne Law School High Court Blog that draws out some of the issues associated with Section 44.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Reflections triggered by Mr Turnbull's London speech

Australian Prime Minister Turnbull's speech in London accepting the Disraeli Prize has been much reported. It has also been much misreported. This piece by John Lyons in the Australian, Not the time to pick this fight,  is an example of the second. I do wonder if Mr Lyons undertook more than a very quick and rough scan before writing. 
The tenor of our times is change and at a pace and scale utterly unprecedented in human history.
In a way, this line set the tenor for Mr Turnbull's speech, a justification for some of what was to follow.

Mr Turnbull went on to attack labels. "The truth is", Mr Turnbull said,  that political labels "have lost almost all meaning in the furious outrage cycle of social media politics, long cast adrift to be appropriated, often cynically, by one politician or another as it suits their purpose." This provided an opportunity to restate what he perceived to be the key principle espoused by the UK Conservatives and the Liberal Party:
respect for humanity not in the mass, as the Left like to see us, but as individuals and families, Edmond Burke’s small platoons, Robert Menzies “forgotten people”.  
So what we admire about our distinguished predecessors, from Churchill to Thatcher, from Menzies to Howard, is not their label but their dogged devotion to the principles of a free society under the law.
From here Mr Turnbull went on to discuss the issue that attracted so much attention in Australia:
In 1944 Menzies went to great pains not to call his new political party, consolidating the centre right of Australian politics, “conservative” - but rather the Liberal Party, which he firmly anchored in the centre of Australian politics. 
He wanted to stand apart from the big money, business establishment politics of traditional “conservative” parties so styled of the right, as well as from the socialist tradition of the Australian Labor Party - the political wing of the union movement. Menzies said at the time: 
“We took the name ‘Liberal’ because we were determined to be a progressive party, willing to make experiments, in no sense reactionary but believing in the individual, his right and his enterprise, and rejecting the socialist panacea.”
He then stated that the "sensible centre, to use my predecessor Tony Abbott’s phrase, was the place to be and it remains the place to be now."
Sovereignty. Law. Security. Liberty.
This line came a little earlier in the speech, but I have included it here because it captures the rest of the speech. Context is everything,. Mr Turnbull suggested. What Disraeli or Churchill or Menzies said had to be seen in the context of their time:
But a strong thread of principle, of value, connects our party, the Liberal Party, to that of Menzies - one that combines both the liberal and conservative traditions - John Howard’s broad church. 
And it is best summed up in this way. 
From its foundation more than sixty years ago, the Liberal Party has stood for freedom.     
From this point, the Prime Minister attempts to mount a case linking the Government's approach to terrorism,  internet control and border protection. One quote will capture the flavour:
Terrorism is the starkest and most urgent enemy of freedom. Terrorists seek to disrupt our freedoms and disable our societies based on trust through fear. They seek to create a society in which people are neither free nor secure. 
It is in the very pursuit of freedom that we seek a stronger role for the State in protecting citizens against the terrorist threat. By fighting terrorism - with proportionate means - we are defending liberal values. 
In order to be free a person must first be safe. 
The reality is that individual freedom, liberty, the rule of law, and indeed national sovereignty, are under threat. 
In a world of rapid change, we must constantly review and improve the policies and laws that will best keep us safe.  To set and forget would be easy, but it would not be right.
 I will leave you to read the whole speech to determine whether my reporting is accurate.

Fairly obviously,  "the tenor of our times is change and at a pace and scale utterly unprecedented in human history" is political hyperbole and is, in a factual sense, grossly incorrect. Equally, the idea that in "order to be free a person must first be safe' is both incorrect and dangerous. How much freedom must we give up in the name of safety?

All this said, the desire to restate the role of the Liberal Party as a party of the centre right strikes me as sensible, although just what constitutes the "sensible centre" is open to dispute. All organisations need to restate their culture and traditions as the world changes if they are to stay relevant. In his own way, Mr Abbott has been doing this as well. In doing so, they will reach back into their past to heroic figures, although coming from a Country Party tradition I am hardly likely to agree with the deification of Mr Menzies or indeed some of the Liberal Party assertions about being a broad universal church. There is too much history there.

At the same time, just being at the centre is not of itself a good thing. During the professionalisation of Australian politics, both Liberal and Labor moved to the centre, becoming in some ways indistinguishable apart from points of emphasis. In turn, this opened the way for new political movements. Now we see all the parties including the newer forces seeking to articulate approaches and differences, to reconcile internal conflicts of values, to restate their positions.

In the case of the Australian Greens, for example, the conflict over Lee Rhiannon is in part about ideology (watermelons versus tree huggers), in part about the desire to operate at a national level in an integrated and professional way to maximise the vote. It also reflects fundamentally different beliefs about the way the Party should organise itself. In the case of the National Party, there has been a drive to re-state the Party's separate identity and policies, most noticeably the renewed focus on decentralisation.

In all this, commentary has tended to focus on the immediate political conflicts, with an underlying message about the need for stability in Government. I just don't share this position. Disunity may damage individual parties, but in a practical sense Government is no more unstable than it has been in the past.

What is more interesting is the way the changes might work themselves out in shaping new political arrangements. Perhaps in all this, I should allow the last word to Mr Turnbull:
The genius of Australia is that we define our national identity not by race or religion or ethnicity but rather by a commitment to shared political values of freedom, democracy, the rule of law, equality of men and women, mutual respect - values accessible to all.
I agree.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

The photography of Gregory Crewdson

Gregory Crewdson, Untitled, 2003
I hadn't heard of the American photographer Gregory Crewdson until I read CNN Nick Glass's piece Photographer Gregory Crewdson captures the dark side of rural America. The photos are really quite striking.

Wikipedia records that Crewdson was born on 26 September 1962. He grew up in New York and in a way drifted into photography, a hobby that became an obsession.

Crewdson's photographs usually take place in small-town America and are dramatic and cinematic, featuring often disturbing, surreal events. The photographs are elaborately staged and lit using crews familiar with motion picture production and lighting large scenes using motion picture film equipment and techniques.

Both the Nick Glass piece and the Wikipedia article cited above explore some of the influences on Crewdson's work. He is, I think, truly brilliant, creating a surreal world that remains somehow linked to the original reality. In a way, they capture the loneliness that lies at the heart of the human condition.

I leave it to you to explore his work. If you are in or will be in London soon, his latest exhibition  CATHEDRAL OF THE PINES is on at the Photographers' Gallery from 23 June to 8 October 2017.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Malcolm Turnbull, Alastair MacGibbon and the latest proposed internet controls

The Latin phrase "quis custodiet ipsos custodes?",   "who will guard the guards themselves?", first appears in the Roman poet Juvenal's Satires (Satire VI, lines 347–348). According to Wikipedia, the original context deals with the problem of ensuring marital fidelity, though it is now commonly used more generally to refer to the problem of controlling the actions of persons in positions of power.

I was reminded of this phrase listening to an interview with Australian Prime Minister Turnbull's National Cybersecurity Adviser Alastair MacGibbon on the need to crack down on encrypted technology in the fight against terrorism. In response to civil liberty questions. Mr MacGibbon used phrases such as "lawful access to information" and "the reality is" to assure us that action was necessary for our own security and that Government would not misuse the powers, that safeguards exist to prevent that misuse.

Two questions arise. First, can we trust the Australian Government not to misuse added powers? Secondly, even if we can, can we assume that our existing system of Government will survive, that a future Australian government might not take a different approach?

Many years ago, I was acting branch head in the Commonwealth Treasury's Foreign Investment Division. We were dealing with a foreign takeover application. The Australian Taxation Office (ATO) asked us to place a freeze on the takeover, but could not explain for confidentiality reasons beyond a broad statement that Australian taxation evasion might be involved. It was a slightly murky case involving possible loans and transfer payments. When I modelled it, I realised that the only way in which evasion might be relevant is if the Australian company and foreign company were in fact owned by the same Australian residents. The problem then was that if that was the case, a blocking order under the Foreign Takeovers Act would be invalid since the Act did not apply to takeovers by Australian owned entities. We therefore had to ignore the taxation issue and recommended that a blocking order not be issued.

Two points to note about this case. The first is the clear separation between Government functions and powers. We would not misuse one power to support another. The second is protection of taxpayer information, the consequent inability to provide taxpayer information to another agency. There were good practical reasons for this. ATO data was sacrosanct not just because ATO was bound by its Act but because this maximised revenue. In very simple terms, if you made money illegally, you were still expected to pay tax on it. The question of legality or otherwise of the activity was a matter for other agencies. If you broke this principle, then people would become even more reluctant to provide taxation information - and cash.

Both principles, separation and confidentiality, have been eroded in the years since. It is just too attractive for Government not to use one power to reinforce another or to seek the immediate benefits offered by big data consolidation and matching to achieve policy objectives. This provides an immediate sugar hit, a short term benefit, but has also resulted in growing mistrust within the community. I think most Australians would now believe that if they provide (or Government is able to access) information to government for one purpose, they will ultimately use it for another regardless of promises at the time.

That said, while more wary, most Australians still trust Australian governments in a general sense. There are protections built into our system, including the rule of law. That brings me to my second question, .can we assume that our existing system of Government will survive, that a future Australian government might not take a different approach?

The short answer has to be no. I don't think many Germans in the Weimar Republic foresaw the rise of Hitler nor the form the Nazi regime would take, none would have foreseen East Germany and the Stasi. Think how those regimes could have used big data and data matching. Could Oscar Schindler have survived if there was someone in Berlin monitoring his KPIs and every movement using modern computer technology?

In similar vein, the question of what determines a terrorist is really only decided after the event and by the winners. This really takes me down a different track. For the moment, I would just note to Alastair MacGibbon that the question of lawful access to information depends on the laws, on legal systems, that can be changed; that there is growing distrust of Government even in Australia: that we cannot assume that information and processes will not be misused; and that short term fixes often create long-term problems,

To use one of his phrases,  the reality is that quis custodiet ipsos custodes continues to apply and continues to be a problem. I think that we need a a lot more information on possible changes that will be used equally by the governments of Malcolm Turnbull and Vladimir Putin.  

Monday, July 03, 2017

ATSI aspects of the 2016 census

The release by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) of the 2016 census results provides a picture of continuing social and demographic change within Australia. This brief post deals with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) population drawn especially from this ABS release.

This focus seems appropriate for this week is NAIDOC Week, an annual week falling in the first full week of July that celebrates the achievements of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. You will find the history of NAIDOC Week here.  

A unifying theme is selected each year. This year the theme is "Our Languages Matter." Again appropriately, my current Armidale Express series focuses on the mystery around the the Aboriginal Anaiwan or Nganjaywana language found on the New England Tablelands.You will find the opening column here.

I have written a fair bit on the language question because it interests me and I have thought it important. With so many Aboriginal languages each with different dialects, retention and revival is a significant problem. We missed a huge opportunity in the sixties and early seventies to record many languages still spoken in at least some form by elderly men and women. Sadly, the then strong interest dissipated in the absence of funding.  

Returning to the census, it records that 649,171 people identified as being of ATSI origin in 2016. This represented 2.8% of the population in the 2016  – up from 2.5% in 2011, and 2.3% in 2006.

The number and proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in each state/territory, and  within that state/territory.The rise in the proportion is due partly to a higher birth rate, more I think to growing identification of people as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. As a simple example of this process, children with one ATSI parent may choose to identify as ATSI, compounding numbers..

The ATSI population is dominated by Aboriginal people.  Of the 649,1710 people who identified as being of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander origin in 2016, 91% were of Aboriginal origin, 5.0% were of Torres Strait Islander origin and 4.1% identified as being of both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander origin.

Many Australians think that the ATSI population is predominantly to be found in Northern Territory. In fact, NSW with 33.3% of the ATSI population remains, as it has done for many years, the state or territory with the largest ATSI population. However, expressed as a percentage of the total population, the proportion is highest in the Northern Territory (25.5%) followed surprisingly by Tasmania (4.6%) and then Queensland (4.0%) and WA (3.1%).  

Number and proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people within each capital city in 2016.Unlike the majority of other Australians, most ATSI people live outside outside the capital cities. Only Canberra (99.5%), Adelaide (53.8%) and Melbourne (50.4%) hold more than half their state or territory ATSI population.

Greater Sydney has the largest absolute number of ATSI residents by a considerable margin, more than the total ATSI population in the Northern territory, but only 32.4% of the NSW ATSI population.  

One side effect of this is that as the regional and especially the inland populations stagnates or even declines, the proportion of the ATSI population increases through a combination of natural increases and migration on the Aboriginal side, emmigration on the non-Aboriginal side. . .

While I have looked at this trend in the past, I don't presently have access to my previous NSW spreadsheets, my impression is that the trend is accelerating.

As a snapshot, Tamworth Regional Council has 6,031 ATSI residents out of a total population of 59,63 or 10.1%; Moree Plains Shire has 2,945 ATSI residents out of a population of 13,195 or 21.6%; Armidale Regional Council has 2,174 ATSI residents out of a population of 29,449 or 7.4%; Kempsey has 3,353 ATSI residents out of a population of 28 885 or 11.6%. I haven't checked properly the numbers for Dubbo, there is some form of statistical definition problem there, but I think the ATSI numbers are over 10,000 now. In Barnaby Joyce's New England electorate, the ATSI population is now 12,946 or 8.4%. In the huge Parkes electorate, the ATSI population is 24,506 or 15.9%.

Just to put these numbers in perspective, the City of Sydney which includes the inner city areas such as Redfern long regarded as Aboriginal centres has 2, 413 ATSI residents out of a population of 200, 374 or 1.2%.

These types of changes have significant statistical, political and policy implications.

As recently as ten years ago, the common policy assumption was that Aboriginal people should and were moving to the city because of employment opportunities. The 2006 census showed out-migration from at least Sydney and especially from places like Blactown within Sydney because there were no jobs. Conditions on the social housing estates in which many Aboriginal people lived were also deteriorating, while others found themselves socially isolated as the estates were broken up in an attempt to alleviate the social problems that had emerged. Many Aboriginal people and especially those with families began to move back to home country.

There was also migration to the bigger regional centres where market rents were lower, social housing more readily available, with at least some jobs.This created another set of difficulties.

These trends seem to have accelerated, although I have not done the detailed analysis required to really support that conclusion. The problem with evidence based policy is that if you ask the wrong questions, if you select the wrong evidence you are going to get the wrong conclusions. If I'm right on the trends, a fair bit of current policy requires a fundamental rethink.