Commentary

06 February 2015: Price-signals

Medicare[This is the second of two articles I wrote during my stint with the South Coast Register, and put up here with kind permission of the editor.]

In light of recent problems suffered by Tony Abbott and the federal Liberal Party (not to mention the state Liberal Parties in Queensland and Victoria), it’s ironic that senior cabinet ministers are arguing the chief problem is a failure to properly explain their policies. They need a better ‘narrative’ to get the message across.

In other words, Australians are stupid for not getting the message the first time around.

The truth is that Australians understood the message very well indeed, and have on the whole rejected it. Taxing and punishing the poor while the rich get off virtually scot-free is not considered fair or workable.

No one denies that measures need to be taken to control government spending.  But as NSW state member for the South Coast Shelley Hancock said, “The Federal Government has to make tough decisions, but these tough decisions are impacting on the poor.”

While Australians ponder possible changes to Medicare that will penalise them for being sick – what the Government calls a ‘price-signal’ – extraordinarily wealthy mining companies such as Swiss-owned Xstrata reap billions in fuel rebates for the privilege of taking our non-renewable resources such as iron ore. To make matters worse, some of these companies produce their own petroleum products. It’s like the Government giving someone money to buy carrots they already grow in their garden.

Xstrata might argue that since their trucks and diggers and earth movers don’t run on publicly funded roads and highways, the rebate on the fuel excise is only fair. But if that argument is solid, people without children should also deserve a rebate for that portion of their income taxed for schools and universities, and people who don’t suffer illness should be able to renege on the Medicare levy.

This is not the only example of our Government’s largesse towards those who need it least.

The Abbott government won power in part because it promised to abolish the carbon tax. While not the most popular Julia Gillard initiative, it at least had the virtue of punishing polluters for polluting – what the current Government might refer to as a ‘price-signal’. Abbott’s scheme to counter climate change, Direct Action, forces Australians to pay polluters for reducing their carbon emissions: in effect, a new tax. This from a government that swore it would not introduce taxes that “are yet another hit on the cost of living of struggling Australian families”.

There are changes the government could make right now that could save them billions in spending – including cutting the diesel rebate to miners, most of them businesses with a majority of overseas’ shareholders, and using cheaper drugs in the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. Just these two actions could save the budget $3.3 billion a year.

It does seem that the present government’s budget plans involve transferring what little wealth we have to those who have wealth aplenty. In effect, we’re being punished for the privilege of not being rich.

04 February 2015: Who is responsible?

overseas workers

Overseas workers leave Manildra’s Bomaderry site with, from left, CFMEU state secretary Brian Parker and reps Dave Curtain and Dave Kelly. Photo courtesy South Coast Register.

[This is one of two articles I wrote towards the end of my three-week stint as a casual journalist with the South Coast Register in January. The editor decided not to use either of them and has kindly given me permission to put them up on my blog. This story was written on Monday 26 January, and although there have been minor developments since then, they do not in my opinion answer any of the questions I raise. An official government investigation by the Fair Work Ombudsman is still underway.]

The most contentious question about the discovery of 29 seriously underpaid overseas workers on the Manildra-owned site in Bomaderry and who lived in appalling conditions in south Nowra, is this: who is responsible?

The best candidate is Chia Tung, a Taiwanese-owned company.

According to Alan Sinclair, who represents Chia Tung in Australia, the Taiwanese company was responsible for employing the workers, their contracts, and the conditions under which they lived.

“Instructions and directions come from Chia Tung,” Mr Sinclair told the Register.

While Mr Sinclair’s claims may be true, he cannot so easily brush away his own responsibility as the company’s local representative. Why wasn’t he on top of the situation? Why wasn’t he aware – at the very least – of their living conditions in what effectively was a dosshouse?

We wish we could ask him, but last we heard he is only speaking through his lawyer.

And guilty at the least of being delinquent in the supervision of its own site is Manildra. Despite the fact that 29 workers were building a pellet feed mill for that company, their initial response – given to us by a local politician who had been in touch with Manildra executives – is that the responsibility belongs with the company contracted out to supply and install the structure.

Despite repeated attempts by the Register to ask Manildra questions about the issue, their only official comment is that they are taking the matter seriously and “are making enquiries of Chia Tung as to the allegations.”

Allegations? The workers’ contracts and living conditions have been sighted by the Register. After five days, surely any information forthcoming from Chia Tung would have been collected, analysed and absorbed, and a full response released to the media?

The Register has also attempted to contact the ministers responsible for the departments of Employment and Immigration and Border Protection: Eric Abetz and Peter Dutton, respectively.

On Friday 16 January, only five days before the Register broke the story, Eric Abetz said, “Contrary to some media reports, workers on 457 visas are not a low cost option to avoid the costs of employing Australian residents.”

Well, contrary to his ministerial opinion, workers on 457 visas are being used as a low cost option to avoid the costs of employing Australian workers. Despite repeated requests from the Register for a comment in light of recent developments, we were informed that one would be coming from the office of Senator Michaelia Cash, the Assistant Minister for Immigration and Border Protection.

While no comment has yet been received from the office of Senator Cash, we have discovered a media release from her office dated January 9 concerning a “substantial fine recently imposed against a Launceston takeaway.”

The takeaway was fined a total of $100,000 for underpaying its Chinese chef by $86,000 over four years. Given the business the chef must have generated over those four years, not to mention the savings in not paying $86,000 in wages, the government’s “substantial fine” barely registers as a slap on the wrist, and hardly a discouragement for other businesses contemplating doing the same.

The official reply to our enquiries from the Department of Immigration is that the department is investigating the matter and “appropriate action” would be taken if a sponsor was discovered to have failed its obligations. Appropriate action could vary from imposing “administrative sanctions” to “applying to the federal court for a civil penalty order”.

South Coast Labour Council secretary Arthur Rorris said the issue illustrated the gap in the compliance and policing of Australia’s industrial and workplace laws.

“The federal government is so obsessed with restricting the activities of trade union members that they are missing the main game – that this gap creates the environment where the alleged conditions for the 29 overseas workers can exist,” he said.

“What happened at the Manildra site tells us some employers can get away with almost anything, and they believe the federal government will do their dirty work by tying the hands of trade unions which otherwise would be in a better position to uncover these sorts of abuses.”

The reply the Register received from the Department of Immigration also stated that the matter had been referred to the Fair Work Ombudsman. When asked for a comment, spokesperson for the FWO replied that indeed the matter was under investigation, but because it was operational it was not appropriate to comment further.

Fair enough.

But is it fair enough that three senior government politicians, Eric Abetz, Peter Dutton and Michaelia Cash, cannot after five days issue a single pertinent comment? If they are not responsible for their respective portfolios, who are? And can the Register please have their telephone numbers?

02 December 2014: Go west, young man!

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This is about latitude and longitude and the different way humans think about geography.

In making Wanderers, Erik Wernquist used the voice of Carl Sagan from an audio recording of his book Pale Blue Dot. At one point in the voice-over Sagan says Herman Melville “spoke for wanderers in all epochs and meridians”.

The phrase stuck in my head as an example of wonderful writing. I could live to be a hundred and never come up with words that so aptly and concisely express a single thought. And then I realised that even if I was as smart and knowledgeable as Sagan, and could turn a phrase as adroitly, I would still never use the world “meridian”.

Australians – I suspect – tend to think of their country from north to south. We all know there is a Western Australia and an east coast, but when most of us think of the Australian continent what we conceptualise is a tropical north, an arid centre and a temperate south. Australia lays south of the equator, and most of our cultural cousins lay north of it. Europeans did not occupy one coast and work their way across to the other side. They first occupied the margins of the continent, circling the landmass like a halo, and then sent expeditions into the centre.

Compare this with the way Europeans and North Americans seem to think of their respective geographies. There’s the Russian Bear in the east, the Middle East, the Far East, the Western Hemisphere. There’s Western Europe and Eastern Europe. There’s Western Civilisation. There’s the orient and the occident. To the best of my knowledge, no Englishman referred to France as the Near South and no Italian thought of Scotland as the Far North. The greatest navigational difficulty for early trans-Atlantic explorers was determining meridians of longitude, not parallels of latitude.

In the US, New York editor Horace Greeley exhorted young Americans to “Go west!”. Of course, if you live in America there is the South and the Bible Belt (with its hint of latitude), but American mythology expresses the urge to go west, to explore and settle new lands, to link the US not from Grand Forks to Corpus Christi but from New York to Los Angeles. Lewis and Clark didn’t make their way along the continental divide, they crossed it, east to west, and the great example of 19th century American industry and technology was the transcontinental railroad finished in 1869.

I’m not sure this says anything about our respective psychologies, but I think it says something about our history and geography.

30 November 2014: Call for moral “bioenhancement” a moral mash

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A call to use technology to improve human morality falls short on morality, not to mention logic.

“Are we fit for the future? Making the case for moral bioenhancement” by Julian Savulescu and Ingmar Persson makes several outsized claims and suggests an equally outsized solution for them.

Their first argument is that “evolutionary pressures have not developed for us a psychology that enables us to cope with the moral problems our new power creates”.

This begs the question of what examples they have to support the argument. It is true we have the technological capacity to willfully destroy ourselves, and yet last time I looked civilisation still flourished. World War II created a dramatic interruption to civilisation and led to the creation of what is to date perhaps our most terrible invention – nuclear weapons – but it was followed not by Armageddon but by the United Nations, the elimination of small pox, the first landings on the moon, novels by Chinua Achebe, Harper Lee and Zadie Smith, films by Alfred Hitchcock, Gillian Armstrong and Stanley Kubrick, music by Philip Glass, Patti Smith and the Beatles, works of art by Ai Weiwei, Henry Moore and Zaha Hadid, revolutionary texts by Rachel Carson, Germaine Greer and Peter Singer. All this was brought into being by human ingenuity and applied and appreciated with the always evolving tool of human psychology.

I think the only way the authors can pretend that our psychological capacity lags behind our intellectual capacity (in all its forms), is if they ignore the ever-widening sphere of human knowledge and experience and, thanks to the Internet, its increasing relevance in our day-to-day lives.

Savulescu and Persson also argue that a “basic fact about the human condition it that it is easier for us to harm each other than to benefit each other”.

Truly? Do Savulescu and Persson, for example, practice hurting people instead of helping them? I don’t. I know almost no one who finds it easier to harm another person rather than benefitting them. This doesn’t just apply to my own family, my own community, my own town. Most people I know have at some point in their life donated time or money, experience or knowledge, to the benefit of people living in another continent, and never willingly committed any act to harm them.

I’m not denying our species is capable of gross inhumanity. The bouts of war and terrorism that flood our television screens on the evening news are testament to our capacity for violence. But those same television reports almost never cover the activities of the Red Cross or Médecins Sans Frontières, and almost never cover the work of the United Nations and its agencies in aiding developing countries all over the world.

It almost seems the authors willingly ignore the evidence indicating humans individually and collectively find it easier – physically and psychologically – to benefit and not harm one another.

The article provides one “case study” to illustrate their point that our “moral psychology” lags behind our intellectual capacity: the lack of international action over climate change. And yet this issue is the very one that has engaged and energized not only individuals and communities, but entire nations (not to mention endless news cycles). While real action has been agonizingly slow, one of the main reasons for this is the nature of the very institutions – such as the United Nations – employed to tackle the problem, institutions that were created to enable peaceful and cooperative behaviour between nation-states.

The great irony of this article, however, is that Savulescu and Persson, then claim that “our knowledge of human biology … is beginning to enable us … to affect the biological or physiological bases of human motivation”, and that this should be be done through drugs, genetic selection or engineering, or by using external devices that affect the brain or the learning process. What better example could there be of we humans using our technological capacity to harm ourselves despite our moral psychology screaming at us to cease and desist?

Who would administer these procedures? Who would receive them? Who would apologise to future generations for the loss of the full capacity of their genetic inheritance in the name of some nebulous greater good? Who would explain to future generations that as with the great 20th century evils of eugenics and forced sterilisation everything was done with the very best of intentions, coloured by our limited knowledge of human psychology, not to mention our limited knowledge of human evolution and biology?

The underlying concern of Julian Savulescu and Ingmar Perrson that our morality needs to keep pace with our technology is an example of how our morality is indeed keeping pace with our technology. Perhaps they should pause in their crusade and take an opportunity to lie down, have a nice cup of tea, and reflect instead on the possibilities of our better natures.

19 November 2014: AI not a threat

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It’s remotely possible that an AI already exists, burbling away quite happily and innocently somewhere on the Internet, ignorant of the miracle of its own existence and no more self-aware than a box of tissues.

The possibility that it’s plotting the destruction of humanity, let alone all life on Earth, seems remarkably unlikely. It may not even realise in any logical sense that there is such a thing as biological life.

And if its intelligence was to develop self-awareness (a big ask) and subsequently an awareness that other life exists (another big ask), so what? Why would it divert resources away from sorting through key words for the NSA (or whatever task it was created to fulfil) to devise some method of eliminating humanity? What broken thread of logic would set it on such an absurd course?

But what if an AI accidentally sets off Armageddon?

In an article for the New York Times titled “Artificial Intelligence as a Threat”[i], technology writer Nick Bilton raises the possibility of a “rogue computer” derailing the stock market, or a robot programmed to fight cancer concluding “that the best way to obliterate cancer is to exterminate humans who are genetically prone to the disease.”

Well, hell, why not go the whole hog and create an AI that can both derail the stock market and exterminate humanity?

In both of these scenarios, surely AI is at best an option? I can imagine a plain old stupid robot making both of these mistakes because of crappy programming or intentional sabotage. Neither case is a genuine argument for we old-fashioned biological intelligences to be afraid of AI. (They may, however, be arguments for us to be afraid of important decision-making being taken from human hands and put into the silicon hands of machines that don’t give a damn, whether or not their processors amount to real intelligence or just a hill of beans.)

Bilton then raised the possibility of self-replicating nanobots being programmed by someone of “malicious intent” to extinguish humanity. But again, the nanobots don’t have to possess AI for this nightmare to become a reality.

Bilton concludes with two possible problems with AIs put forward by futurists like Elon Musk. First, that AIs created to make decisions like humans will not have a sense of morality, and second, that intelligent machines will one day go on to build even more intelligent machines that ultimately will lord it over the planet.

While it is true that AIs are unlikely to have a sense of morality, they are no more likely to experience murderous paranoia, or indulge in sociopathic tendencies. A human without any morality may want to kill other humans, but how does that translate to an AI without morality wanting to kill humans, or for that matter kill other AIs?

As for AIs creating super-AIs that end up ruling the earth, why would they want to? I love playing Civilization V on my computer, and using my tanks and political clout to take over the whole game map, but if I had a brain the size of the Empire State Building there’s about a zillion other things I could do that would keep me entertained and fulfilled, and none of them involve bending creatures of lesser intelligence to my will. There’s a whole universe out there to explore, and telling the Simon Browns of this world what to do or how to do it simply wouldn’t float my chip.

[i] And three days later picked up by the Sydney Morning Herald for its weekend edition of 8-9 November 2014, which is where I came across it.

14 November 2014: Elections and gerrymandering

2010 FEDERAL ELECTION

Photo courtesy the Australian Electoral Commission

When Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry signed off on a bill that reorganised his state’s voting districts to suit his own political party, the Boston Gazette coined the term “gerrymander” because one of the new districts looked like a salamander. This happened way back in 1812, but gerrymandering is still a feature of democracies worldwide.

In the recent midterm elections held in the US, for example, the Republicans won the state House in Michigan 63 seats to 47, despite winning less than 50% of the popular vote. If the districts had been fairly assigned, the Democrats would now be controlling the state House 56-54. [For these and other figures, go here. Thanks to Dispatches from the culture wars for the heads-up.]

This isn’t to heap scorn on the American political system – Australia, too, has had its fair share of gerrymandering and malapportionment – but to heap praise on an Australian institution that gets almost no attention unless it does something wrong, an incredibly rare event.

The Australian Electoral Commission was created in 1902. One of its chief responsibilities is the redistribution of federal electoral boundaries so that every state and territory electorate has a similar number of potential voters. There is one rider to this redistribution: no state can have less than 5 electorates, and no territory can have less than 2 electorate, a result of promises made to the states at federation (a result that favours Tasmania with one extra seat – giving them a total of 5 electorates).

Since the beginning of this century, all Australian state governments also follow the principle of “one vote, one value” in assessing the boundaries of state electorates.

I worked in the AEC for a short time in the middle 80s, and know firsthand of the organisation’s dedication and professionalism. If only voters in democracies the world over had a similar impartial institution to manage elections and organise electoral redistributions.

29 October 2014: Voting and democracy

Politicians screwing voters is – and always has been – par for the course in democracies. A particularly obnoxious and racist attempt at blindsiding a huge chunk of citizens took place in the US this month.

As reported in The Guardian and The New York Times, a recent decision by the Supreme Court of the United States allows Texas to impose strict ID conditions on voters. The move may effectively disenfranchise an estimated 600,000 registered voters in the upcoming 4 November midterm elections. Overwhelmingly those disenfranchised will be poor African Americans and Latinos. It is seen by many as an attempt by the Republicans to reduce the growing electoral power of minorities in Texas, minorities who traditionally vote Democrat.

Republicans argue the new measures were introduced to combat voter fraud. However, as the story in The Guardian points out, only two cases of fraud out of 20 million votes have been brought to conviction in the past 10 years.

I would like to think that this kind of political bastardry could never happen in Australia, not from any hope that Australian politicians are more virtuous than their American counterparts, but because voting in Australia is compulsory. I suspect voter fraud is potentially easier to hide when only 63% of the population turns out to vote (as it did when Obama was elected president in 2008), as opposed to the 93% that turned out in the 2013 Australian federal election.

More importantly, although compulsory voting doesn’t stop political parties from damaging their opponents through other tried and trusted means, when voting is mandated by law it’s harder for governments to put up hurdles.

The main point I want to make about compulsory voting is that it is the best expression of the idea that, in a democracy, voting is a responsibility and not a right. This was recognised from the very start of democracy, in ancient Athens, when citizens who could vote at assemblies were believed to have the duty to do so.

At its heart, democracy guarantees no rights at all. The only thing democracy guarantees is the equal distribution of political responsibility among enfranchised citizens: one person, one vote. Democracy does not tell us who can or cannot be a citizen, or who can or cannot be enfranchised. Democracy does not guarantee freedom of speech or freedom of assembly. Democracy does not guarantee equality before the law.

Voters in a democracy can certainly bestow any or all of those rights on citizens (and, indeed, non-citizens). Just as certainly voters in a democracy can diminish, curtail or repeal those rights.

High voting turnout for elections makes democracy more representative and therefore more stable. Whether it is the law or political engagement that gets the voter to the ballot box, a strong democracy is more likely to serve all the citizens rather than a select few.