Friday, April 26, 2019

Personal reflections on Australia's 2019 elections 1 - a macro view

Australia goes to the polls on 18 May for a House of Representatives plus half Senate election. The Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) has now released full candidate details. William Bow has a useful summary of total numbers by party. Interestingly, the AEC reports that a record 96.8% of eligible Australians had enrolled for the 2019 federal election. This is the most complete electoral roll in history with youth  (18-24 YOs) enrolment  also an all-time high of 88.8%.

I haven't really commented on the election, although I have been following it in a mild sort of way. The public opinion polls continue to suggest a significant Labor Party win, although the coalition position has strengthened a little in some marginal seats. Pre-poll voting is just opening. With so many people now voting before polling day, the significance of last minute changes in trend has reduced.

I won't cry tears of blood if Labor wins. I don't personally like Mr Shorten, that's just an emotional reaction for I have never met the man. But I am not worried about Mr Shorten becoming PM. We don't live in a presidential system, although .some would like to present in that. way.

I disagree with some of the Labor policies, some very much, but they are within the general ball park. Further, the fact that I see some of the Labor team as very  credible tempers my concerns about Mr Shorten. It might not if he were president!

On the other side of the ledger, I won't cry tears of blood if the Coalition is returned. In fact, that might be better for certain things I support. However, any general support I may have had for the Coalition Government has eroded and for a number of reasons.

I don't like the hard men and women of the Liberal Party. To my mind, they put ideology in front of practical pragmatic action that might benefit the country.

The 2014 Hockey/Abbott budget was a disaster because it was seen as, and indeed was, unfair. That budget lay the base for a Labor response that, to my mind, has gone too far on the other side. But it's hard to blame Labor. They played the hand they were dealt quite well.

I think that the decision to drop a carbon price was silly, that Mr Abbott's campaign on the issue was downright dishonest. I support market mechanisms. I also support coal mining and indeed the use of coal in power generation so long as there is a carbon price on Australian emissions. Without that, my arguments are weakened.

Australia's electricity system has become a mess. That mess dates back to decisions taken in the first half of the 1990s, something that I wrote about at local level here, where certain ideological principles determined policy. We were promised benefits through lower prices that did not eventuate. Governments, state and federal, compounded problems through their subsequent actions. .

The NBN is another sore point. I did not want Mr Turnbull replaced by Mr Morrison because I could see no gain in it. That does not mean that I was a strong Turnbull supporter.  Rightly or wrongly, I consider that Mr Turnbull replaced the old concept of the  divine right of kings with a divine belief in the overwhelming power of his own intellect.

The original concept of the NBN may have been flawed, but Mr Turnbull's melded model retains the flaws and adds new ones. The end result looks like a lower performance mess. Thinking about this, there were two central problems.

The first was Mr Turnbull's belief that he knew what people needed when it came to bandwidth and speeds. I think that that has already been invalidated. The second was his belief that he knew the technology, that it was possible to meld very different systems. The end results was an NBN that retains the flaws in the original model while introducing new ones.

Refugees is the last area I want to mention. This is one that we have debated here. My core concern is a simple one. Start from the premise that we do need to protect our borders in a strong way. The question then becomes how we do this in the most humane way. I think that the Government has simply failed here.

I don't want to make this a long post. In my next post on the elections, I will look at some of the patterns as I see them.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Problems of employment and free speech - Folau, Ridd and Anderson

"Rugby Australia Chief Executive, Raelene Castle said: “At its core, this is an issue of the responsibilities an employee owes to their employer and the commitments they make to their employer to abide by their employer’s policies and procedures and adhere to their employer’s values." Australian Rugby Union media statement, 15 April 2019 on the breach notice served on Israel  Folau
Israel Folau is, arguably, Australia's best Rugby back. A devout Christian, he was sanctioned by Australian Rugby Union for his comments during the debate in Australia on gay marriage. Folau did not believe that it should be approved, that  homosexuality was a sin. Now he has posted on Instagram that people engaging in certain behaviour including drunkenness, idolatry, theft, adultery and homosexuality must repent or go to hell. The quotes appear to have been drawn directly from passages in the Christian bible.

The posts created a storm, focused on the comments on homosexuality. Other elements were ignored.
The ARU gave notice to Folau that his contract was to be terminated. Folau is fighting the case.
 "What we are expecting, through the (university's) code of conduct and our enterprise agreement, is that we have a safe, respectful, ethical and professional workplace," deputy vice chancellor Iain Gordon told 7.30. James Cook University's Deputy VC commenting on the sacking of Professor  Peter Ridd  for the way he criticised colleagues on Sky TV and in private emails over their views on climate change. 
Professor Ridd was sacked. He appealed to the Federal Court. The Court found that his sacking was unlawful. The judge's views were reported as following:
In his judgement, Judge Sal Vasta found Dr Ridd's termination was unlawful, as JCU's enterprise agreement protected his comments over and above the university's code of conduct. 
"It is actually [Clause 14] that is the lens through which the behaviour of Professor Ridd must be viewed," Judge Vasta wrote. 
"To use the vernacular, the University has 'played the man and not the ball'. 
"Clause 14 means that it is the right of Professor Ridd to say what he has said in any manner that he likes, so long as he does not contravene the sanctions embedded in cl.14 — that is at the heart of intellectual freedom." 
Judge Vasta wrote that the university had "not understood the whole concept of intellectual freedom". 
"In the search for truth, it is an unfortunate consequence that some people may feel denigrated, offended, hurt or upset. 
"It may not always be possible to act collegiately when diametrically opposed views clash in the search for truth."
Note that here we have an apparent conflict between two different policies and procedures, a conflict between general behaviour expected of an employee and academic freedom. This has been a vexed issue in the United States.
Sydney University has sacked a controversial lecturer who showed students a lecture slide featuring the Nazi swastika imposed over Israel's flag. 
Two months after senior lecturer in political economy, Tim Anderson, was first suspended and asked to show cause why his employment should not be terminated for "serious misconduct", the university rejected his appeal. Sydney Morning Herald report.
In commenting on the matter, Sydney University Provost Stephen Garton reportedly said:
All staff were required to meet behavioural expectations. “We have always supported and encouraged our staff to engage in public debate and accept that sometimes those views might be controversial," he said. 
“We will continue to defend the right of our academic staff to express unpopular views as part of their teaching and research, and recognise this as a vital part of the academic process. 
“At the same time, staff must also meet their obligation to engage in debate in a civil manner, and in accordance with our policies and codes of conduct.”
So here, too, we have a conflict between the imposition of two different codes of conduct imposed through contracts of employment.

I have chosen these three cases because they illustrate a point I want to make, one that confuses me.

In recent years, I have mainly done contract work because I wanted an income stream that would support my writing addiction, This means that I have worked for a number of biggish organisations predominantly in the public and not-for-profit sectors. In each case, I have had to do on-line induction training on things like organisational values, code of conduct and, in recent years, social media policies.. This has made me increasingly uncomfortable.

I suppose that this came to a head during the plebiscite on same sex marriage in Australia. I voted yes for reasons I have explained. But when I saw Qantas, a major sponsor of the Australian Rugby Union, come out formally and strongly in favour of a yes vote, I thought what would I do if I worked for Qantas and wanted to campaign for no? Would they fire me or would I just be marked never to be employed again? I concluded that the only way to save my job (or contract) would have been to shut up.

I support the idea of humane and comfortable work places, although I have reservations about the way this may work in practice. Bullying is an example I referred to. Having being involved in a bullying case (I was the one who was allegedly being bullied), I wish that that I had never been.

I was tired and under stress and mishandled it very badly. Instead of calming things down as I had hoped, we ended in a situation where no-one gained. There were only costs.It was a failure on my part.

Linking this back to my my starting point, does an employer have the right to impose limitations on the comments of employees or indeed behaviour outside the workplace? I am driven to the position that the answer is yes.

Employment is a contract, a payment for service. The employee does not have the right to object .to behaviour that conflicts with it's objectives.  One can say that Qantas is hypocritical because it has strategic alliances that are in fundamental variance with its stated values.  But, at the end of the day, that is a matter for Qantas. I's staff can choose to work for it oar not., 

I know that this isn't a comfortable position,There is  are obvious legal questions. But Qantas can only impose its views if it complies with Australian law.

Our universities are now big businesses. They, too, as employers have the right to limit our speech where it conflicts with their commercial objectives. Again, only if it does not conflict with local law.

 If you disagree with me, I think that you must address this question. What gives Folau, Ridd or  Anderson the right to object to restrictions placed upon their view by employers? Where do we draw the line? 


In a comment, marcellous pointed me to this Australian High Court case,  Comcare v. Banerji. I have recorded the link here because I want to come back to it later. . 

Monday, April 08, 2019

Monday Forum - How do we preserve civility and cooperation in a polarised world?

I suppose that this Monday Forum owes its existence to drinks I had last Thursday with Harry Creamer and his friend Andrew Waterworth. Both were in Sydney for a reunion of their old college. It was fun.

I regard Harry as a thoroughly good thing.  We really met when I was chair of Tourism Armidale and he was deputy chair.

I was trying to get people to see Armidale and tourism promotion in a new way. Forget the focus on just what Armidale and the immediate environs had. Think of Armidale as a base to explore a much greater area. It was a good base because of its attractions and life style, but there was so much more to be found beyond Armidale.

I was also suggesting that we should promote Armidale as the place that would have been capital of the New England New State. The existence of the separatist movement was a story in its own right, while Armidale as capital was to New England as  Edinburgh was the Scotland. I had some difficulties in getting both ideas across, but Harry was a supporter.

At the time, Harry was working for NSW National Parks. I did not know until later the work that he was doing on documenting Aboriginal languages and history across the broader New England.. His photos are now being digitised by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS.). I look forward to seeing them.

Harry has retired to Port Macquarie. There has campaigned for recognition of climate change through the North Coast press. He has also been involved in efforts to continue the work of Ned Iceton. Most recently, he has become a campaign volunteer for Rob Oakeshott, one of now 500.

Andrew Waterworth was also fun. A film maker and journalist, he moved to Dunedin and is now living in Central Otago. This is Pullar country, part of the New ZealandBbelshaws. so we had a lot to talk about.

I relaxed and enjoyed myself but, relaxed, I made some very rude comments about the Greens. Now I should have known better. A year or so back I did the same in Armidale, adding insult to injury with some positive comments about the Nationals. A long standing friend left the party to avoid getting into a fight.

Now this Forum was going to be about some of the inanities of certain parts of the environmental movement and especially the vegans, a follow up to this post,That Aussie Farms' map - a vacuous gesture that poses some individual dangers but has no meaning beyond.  But since I started writing, my thoughts have gone in a different direction. How do we preserve civility and cooperation in a polarised world?

I an mot sure that this is really a sensible topic for a forum, it's too amorphous.  But I think it's important. My friends span opinions. I like them personally and want to retain links. I also want to be able to pull people together to campaign on common issues where divides would otherwise prevent real cooperation. But how do we do that?

Over to you. As always, feel free to go in whatever direction you want. . 

Sunday, April 07, 2019

Sunday Essay - Tibsy and the pleasure of watching birds

In December I mentioned  that I had acquired a new friend, a young magpie subsequently named Tibsy.

With Avenger's death, the cat food that had been outside and which acted as a magnet for multiple birds ceased. However, Tibsy does come back from time to time and stands there, looking hopeful.

Friday, a friend and I were having lunch outside. Tibsy landed and walked right up to the table. We threw him bits and pieces which he ate with apparent satisfaction.

This morning he was back. He is a bigger bird now with glossy feathers, although that's not clear from the second photo. I gave him a little more bread and he then flew happily away, providing a chorus first from the back of a chair.

I spend a fair bit of time sitting out the back. It's peaceful despite the constant background murmur of traffic and the sometimes noise of planes when the flight path brings them this way.  The birds also provide constant if sometimes noisy entertainment especially in the mornings and evenings.

There are a lot of birds in this area, despite the presence of some cats. The Botany Wetlands used to stretch from Centennial Park down to Botany Bay. The remnant wetlands start just down my street and are a haven for a variety of birds.

Then you have all the birds that have adapted to living with humans in urban areas. These include that now ubiquitous pest,  the Indian Myna bird as well as the bin chickens, the White Ibis.

I have a love hate/relationship with the Mynas. They are very noisy, talking all the time. They are also aggressive - I think of them as ether the spitfires or perhaps stukas of the bird world, grouping together in a wing formation to mob and chase away much bigger birds.

The rise of the urban bin chicken is relatively recent. Ibis are wading birds that have adapted to the availability of food. They are very common in this area as are pigeons. Ibis may be a royal bird in Europe, but they hardly seem royal when pecking at a garbage bag to open it. And they shit. I know all birds do, but the Ibis roost in the tall palm trees and deposit their droppings from a great height to the sometimes distress of passer-byes. The bus stop I go to is quite dangerous with Ibis roosting on both sides of the bus stop.

My interest in birds is relatively recent. Growing up we had bird books and used to colour them in, but then my life style took me well away from any bird studies. Indeed, I used to regard bird watching as a rather quaint hobby, a bit like watching grass grow.

I appear to have changed my mind. It's hard not to become interested when one's own backyard is part of bird central to the point that I can even recognise individual characters. It's not an addiction yet, but it a very pleasnt way of passing the time while thinking of other things.