The Federal Government has proposed that new laws be introduced to force telecommunication companies to retain two years of metadata records.
What’s metadata? “Metadata includes the phone number from which a call is made, the number to which it is made, the identity of the owners of those numbers, the location of the caller and the recipient and the time and duration of a call”, says journalist James Massola. “Metadata also includes the internet protocol address of a website visited but not which web pages have been visited on a given website”.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott has likened it to collecting the information on the “front of an envelope” but not the contents of the letter.
There is reason to suspect that the government is also cooperating with the American National Security Agency to go beyond the bounds of the law. As journalist Glen Greenwald has pointed out using confidential material leaked by National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden, the Australian government requested help from the NSA to spy on Australians. The NSA this year admitted that some of its analysts had violated the US Constitution’s prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures.
Critics have argued that collecting data on millions of Australians without a warrant assumes everyone is a criminal and invades their privacy.
This is but one instance of the increasing criminalisation of daily life. Another example is the government proposal to reverse the onus of proof for Australians returning from trips to the Middle East. Under the proposal, it would be up to individuals travelling to designated areas to show they didn’t partake in terrorist activities while overseas. Senator David Leyonhjelm got it right when he said “The idea is you commit an offence unless you can prove you’re innocent, it just goes against all of our rights and freedoms as a free society.’’
One of the bands that reminds me of growing up in California in the 1990s.
In 2003 the United Nations Children's Fund released a revised edition of an assessment on the state of young people in Iraq. Among many harrowing conclusions was the mistreatment of women, pervasive malnutrition among children, and disturbing statistics showing that infant mortality in Iraq was high 107 per 1,000 live births and was over double what it was at the end of 1980. Save the Children estimates that close to 90 per cent of all injuries and deaths during war are sustained by civilians, mostly women and children.
Young people around the world have heeded the call for help: hundreds are volunteering their time and skills to aid in the co-ordination of resources in Iraq. Brendan Lund, a 26-year old who involved himself in helping Iraqis through the Coalition Provisional Authority, explains the reality on the ground: "The majority of Iraqis support the effort. They don't want the US here forever but they know that they need us now." As Iraqi expatriates slowly trickle back to rebuilding efforts, they face an Iraq where tensions between ethnic groups are running high and adrenaline is flowing freely.
There are 12 million people in Iraq under the age of 19 more than half the country's population who need our constructive support. In this regard, small improvements in quality of life matter especially if it improves the lives of the very young, who didn't ask to be born orphaned, or even ask to be born, into the volatile environment created by grown-ups. What is as shocking as witnessing beggars without arms plying their trade? It's seeing children in tattered clothes, roaming the streets and not going to school; this is a sight I hope would soon cease to exist in the new Iraq.
In October 2003, the International Donors' Conference on Reconstruction in Iraq resulted in a pledge of financial assistance of over $US 33 billion by 73 countries, 20 international organisations and 13 non-governmental organisations. This was real progress. Withdrawing troops by Christmas however, as a Labor government has announced it would do, is a step in the wrong direction. No wonder then, that so many pundits have predicted another major terrorist attack between now and Election Day could tip odds overwhelmingly in favour of the Liberals.
It baffles me that public opinion is still divided on the issue of plans for a future Iraq. Robert Horvath in 'The Age' was absolutely right: for all the criticisms made by anti-war commentators about the decision to go to war in Iraq, these same critics have been either strangely silent or have conveniently played down positives arising from the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Therefore, despite lip service by cynics, Iraq is undoubtedly a golden opportunity to instil a government for the people, by the people.
A stable democracy in the Middle East is beneficial in two main ways. One, it gives an equal voice to people of all faiths, including Muslims. Thus a representative democracy takes into account conflicting views and adjusts accordingly. Minority groups are given a fair say, and can voice their opinions in a public forum without having to resort to kidnappings or extortion to gain attention. Two, it provides the Western world with an invaluable link to the Middle East. Hence, a friendly relationship with an elected Iraqi government is likely to mean better relations with neighbouring countries too.
The modern state of Iraq arose in 1920 as part of the peace settlement after World War I. However, it was explored (and exploited) by the Iraq Petroleum Company, a conglomerate of British, Dutch, French and U.S. oil interests. Constant British influence ensured the government was never really in tune with the people of Iraq. If the "coalition of the willing" is serious about helping Iraqis, it will follow through on its many promises to guarantee such a situation does not occur again.
Knowing his democratic ideals, Thomas Jefferson would undoubtedly have advocated that the will of the people must reign supreme: any hint of unrest could result in another coup; a power vacuum could mean another authoritarian regime. In light of the fact that the United Nations is fully backing current efforts by the coalition in Iraq, it's high time Western public opinion made a decisive choice: to continue to flog the dead horse of an "unjustified" and conspiratorial war, or to move on and support a humanitarian military presence (for the waging of peace) by contributing to aid efforts for the victims of war. The children of Iraq anxiously await your decision.
Note: This article was written at a time when I agreed with the foolish neo-conservative goal of invading Iraq and changing the world through force and doesn't reflect my current opinion.
In evaluating policy, the first question must always be: does the government have any business regulating in this area'? When it comes to immigration policy, it's clear the federal government has a duty to conduct security checks on individuals wanting to live in Australia. They are also justified in demanding a minimum level of physical health to ensure migrants don't become a liability to the taxpayer by abusing public healthcare. But where both Liberal and Labor have gone wrong is in limiting the number of economic migrants who can enter Australia.
Stringent controls on migration are said to be needed because many migrants are welfare abusers. However, there's scant evidence that welfare abuse by migrants is a problem. As one 2003 OECD report notes, "The rapid decline in average welfare recipient rates in the period after immigrants arrive, to levels below those for Australian-born, suggests there is no overall problem of welfare-dependency incentives among immigrants".
Most migrants are decent hard working people who relocate to make use of the opportunities on offer in a developed country, not to take advantage of our generous social welfare system. Many go on to bravely serve in our armed forces, start successful companies or pioneer advances in science and technology. They bring experience and skills that generate prosperity in the long run.
Immigrants bring with them money which they spend on Australian products. They pay money into the tax system, and so help fund the services Australians use. They also bring savings that contribute to overall investment levels in Australia.
One need only look to America prior to World War I, when thousands of arrivals set up an economic backbone of small businesses. Even if some immigrants - such as refugees - aren't highly skilled upon arrival they are nevertheless a source of untapped human capital and can eventually make a valuable contribution to society.
In the past 60 years, more than 660,000 refugees and displaced people have been resettled in Australia. But we can do more. It should be made easier to permanently reside in Australia.
First, the present points system should be abolished. A better method might be to implement economist Gary Becker's suggestion of a one-off immigration tariff as the only barrier (apart from health and security checks) to permanent residency. The fee could be set at approximately $50,000. This fee would become a source of revenue and would fund any additional public expenses created by immigration inflow.
Second, the current policy of mandatory detention must be reformed. Asylum seekers placed in detention should be allowed to be released into the community on bail. This is consistent with the principles of natural justice and is a more sensible way to deal with the problem of unauthorised arrivals. Sponsors within Australia should be allowed to put up bail money.
The only catch' is that new migrants should be denied some welfare entitlements. This is a dynamic approach and asks refugee groups and businesses to essentially put their money where their mouth is'. If individuals or groups in Australia can pay the immigration fee and support self-reliant arrivals, they are welcome to sponsor as many permanent residents as they wish. There should be no absolute limit on intake numbers.
Because labour is an important input into the production process, businesses need a reliable supply of workers. Enabling Australia to reach its economic potential necessarily involves enabling the freer movement of people. It's not the role of government to decide which professions are most needed in Australia; this should be left to businesses not bureaucrats. The global labour force should be opened up to business, so they can choose the most qualified employees without having to deal with arbitrary government quotas.
For most looking to permanently migrate to Australia, this would be good news. Such a policy would be especially helpful to international students seeking permanent residency. The major losers are likely to be immigration lawyers, who will find less work as these proposed reforms would simplify the current system.
No doubt there will be opposition from vested interests who will claim that freer immigration takes away local jobs. In reality, increased immigration would probably create jobs. A study by economists Richard Vedder, Lowell Galloway and Stephen Moore found that American states with the highest rates of immigration during the 1980s also had the highest rates of economic growth and lowest rates of unemployment. On net, after calculating costs and benefits, most studies suggest immigration is economically beneficial.
Thus, freer immigration is a humane and economically sensible policy.
Americans must wonder why other Western nations have not had frequent terrorist attacks. Australia, Sweden and Switzerland for example, are rarely the targets of domestic terrorism. If the terrorists universally hate free and democratic nations, why is this?
Chalmers Johnson has written a book titled Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire that tries to find the answer to this anomaly. He focuses on evaluating the extent to which American foreign policy inspires terrorism. Most of the book is based around supporting his central assertion of something called blowback: "a term the CIA invented to describe the likelihood that [American] covert operations in other people's countries would result in retaliations against Americans, civilian and military, at home and abroad."
For Johnson it is no mystery. Terrorists generally don't dislike America for what it represents (material wealth and democracy), but for what the American government does in foreign nations.
Indeed, one of Osama bin Laden's grievances was the stationing of American troops in Saudi Arabia. Yet the US did not withdraw its troops until 2003, despite repeated terrorist attacks (that is, blowback) throughout the 1990s. Somehow neither Democrats nor Republicans understood the message from the terrorists: we don't want you interfering in our internal affairs, leave us alone. The good that came from eventually withdrawing American troops from Saudi Arabia has now been negated by waging two unnecessary and constitutionally suspect wars in the heart of the Middle East. Again, one observes the common American government practice of meddling in other nations.
A consistent theme of American foreign policy has been picking winners - usually incorrectly. In Afghanistan, the Americans funded the Taliban in the 1980s, but then changed their mind after September 11 and came back and supported the opposition Northern Alliance. Picking winners is a favourite habit of governments in the economic realm, and it is also evident in foreign policy. But picking winners also means the losers begin to resent you.
While distaste for American values or religious fervour might be a propaganda tool terrorists use to motivate followers, the underlying tension is created by foreign policy actions taken by the American government, starting with the CIA's overthrow of the Iranian leader in 1953. Since that time, American policy has become increasingly interventionist, and the CIA has engaged in numerous clandestine operations that many Americans would be appalled of, if they knew what went on in their name.
Johnson wrote the first edition of his book before the September 11 attacks. In it, he correctly predicted acts of retaliation upon US interests. His argument is that everyone reaps what they sow; the worst blowback from the 20th century, and more recently from Iraq and Afghanistan, is yet to come.
The thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians that have been killed due to American "friendly fire" have families. Even if we in the West forget these Iraqi deaths, their families won't. The terrorists will capitalise on the resentment against Americans to gain financial support. This means Americans should prepare for the hatred their government has recently generated in the Middle East. It means there will almost certainly be another major terrorist attack on American soil 5-10 years down the track.
Sadly, more American citizens have died in Iraq than were killed on September 11. It is time America reverted to a humble foreign policy that focuses on securing American democracy and liberty, before it justifies billions of dollars and thousands of lives by citing false security concerns or the need to install democracy by force in other nations. Blowback is real, and the quicker Americans understand this, the quicker America can stop being a target for terrorism.
What fools these economists must take us for! It must surely be obvious from the turmoil of recent months that economists are a notoriously unreliable bunch. Since economics is not a precise science, it is easily perverted by political biases. Most mainstream economists cannot even agree what caused the financial crisis - let alone what we should do to solve it.
Surveys have consistently shown that support for free trade is the only issue upon which economists are in near unanimous agreement. A majority of economists favour abolishing minimum wages, but the agreement on this is less strong than on international trade. On all other issues, there is much disagreement, even over the application of basic principles such as supply and demand to controversial issues (e.g. illicit drugs).
This wide divergence of views makes it easy for governments to pick and choose economists who provide the advice that they want to hear. And so it is with the present economic troubles. Politicians all over the world have been promising to rescue us from another Great Depression, using Keynesian economists as apologists for pork-barrelling schemes that increase their influence.
A crisis, of course, is the perfect time for elites to bamboozle the public. Politicians are able to trot out ways to spend taxpayer money that they had to discard as politically unfeasible during the good times. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, for example, has been able to get away with a large number of new projects in marginal electorates. In the process, he has blown a massive budget surplus and turned it into an expected deficit. All the lavish appropriations have been justified by saying, it must be done to stimulate the economy and avert a recession'. Truly, it is in a crisis that the ruling class are in their prime.
One might think that the large amount of mathematics that economists use means their discipline is well suited to forecasting events. To the contrary, not only were most economists unable to predict the present crisis, they are also regularly off the mark in more basic forecasts, especially in fiscal policy.
It must be noted however, that there are some economists who have a good track record at forecasting. The Austrian economists', for example, had been arguing since 2003 that the Federal Reserve (America's central bank) was inadvertently creating the conditions for a severe recession. Their predictions were extremely specific, and have now been borne out. In addition the leading light of the Austrian school, the late Professor Ludwig von Mises, foresaw the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Overall, however, the track record of economists at making projections into the future is not a good one. We should think twice before trusting economists to know what they are talking about in this regard.
We should be sceptical of government economists, especially the central bankers. Governments usually shift the blame for their mistakes onto capitalism. Hence, we are unlikely to see politicians blame former Chairman of the Fed, Alan Greenspan, for his excessively loose monetary policy. Many believe that by keeping interest rates too low and encouraging artificial increases in wealth through speculative bubbles, Greenspan is guilty of contributing to the problem, especially in the housing sector. But you won't be seeing a push to reform monetary policy. That would be against the interests of our representatives, who must shift the blame to unfettered greed' and free-markets if they are to be re-elected.
It should be evident by now from the lackluster performance of bailout packages and interest rate cuts that the economists who said these measures would prevent a recession were wrong. A recession is coming, whether we spend $1 billion or $1 trillion of taxpayer money.
What politicians should be doing now is staying out of the way, instead of creating uncertainty in markets and thereby prolonging the agony. One of the important lessons from the 1930s is that regime uncertainty' can make matters worse, converting a recession into a depression. Robert Higgs in Depression, War and Cold War, observes that instead of allowing businesses and individuals to adjust to the changed economic environment of their own accord, political leaders inadvertently instilled a lack of confidence among private investors.
In short, we have more to fear from the drastic measures taken in recent months than from the economic crisis itself. If we allow governments to seize even greater powers under the pretence of saving us from disaster, it is certain that future generations will live to regret what is being done now. What we need to do is take a deep breath and stop panicking. This is not the end of the world.
If we don’t allow free speech for the worst members of our society, then such ‘free speech’ doesn’t really mean much.
A recent article in Indian Link by Matt Kean (the Member for Hornsby) argues that section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act should not be repealed despite concerns over its suppression of Australians’ freedom of political communication. That section makes it unlawful to “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people” where “the act is done because of the race, colour or national or ethnic origin of the other person or of some or all of the people in the group”.
In defending section 18C, Kean claims that freedom of speech is not absolute, citing as an example the law against defamation which places limits on the ability to make false statements.
Kean thinks that liberal democracy will operate just fine with section 18C continuing to remain in effect: “As a society, we recognise that these restrictions do not hurt our democracy or way of life. Indeed, we understand that they are necessary to maintain it. And laws against hate speech are no less necessary, because racism and bigotry tear at the heart of our social fabric”.
Although Kean writes in a general way about how section 18C will supposedly maintain a freedom-loving society (albeit free of outward racism), he omits any reference to the actual operation of the provision and how critics have shown it has suppressed reasonable public discourse. Besides, his example of defamation laws is exactly the opposite of the truth: defamation laws are probably a greater restriction on legitimate speech than 18C.
In theory it sounds nice to pass a law against racist speech. But what is racism anyway? Racism is more than just making politically incorrect comments that are potentially offensive to some ethnic groups keen to avoid criticism. It should require something more – for example, physically excluding someone from public property or firing a public employee due to race.
Yet section 18C has been used to suppress merely controversial comments rather than explicit racism involving exclusion from public property. One of the best examples of how section 18C has been abused is the Andrew Bolt case which was a classic instance of the Racial Discrimination Act being used to suppress legitimate opinions. Bolt wrote a controversial column criticising the idea that aboriginal people should receive special treatment that other Australians don’t receive. He made a fair point since the rule of law requires everyone to be treated the same.
Bolt says he’s not a racist. He didn’t display outward signs of racism that would have justified him being associated with bigotry. All he did was his job: as a newspaper columnist, it’s his job to provoke thought. So why was Bolt found liable under section 18C?
Defamation laws are even worse. The idea that defamation laws are a good idea is an unthinking response that assumes the status quo is just. Look into it and the only reasonable conclusion is that defamation laws are frequently used by the rich and powerful to silence their less well funded and legally astute opponents. Brian Martin of the University of Wollongong has shown how defamation laws have been used to protect corrupt politicians.
Defamation laws and hate speech laws are founded on the wrong assumption that you own what other people think about you. As Murray Rothbard explains in The Ethics of Liberty however, in a free society everyone owns themselves and nobody should have the power to become the ‘thought-police’. “We can, of course, readily concede the gross immorality of spreading false libels about another person”, he explains. “But we must, nevertheless, maintain the legal right of anyone to do so.”
Certainly, there are exceptions. You can’t be a racist if that racism includes planning acts of violence against ethnic groups (as did the Ku Klux Clan in the United States). But that’s already covered by existing criminal laws and doesn’t require the superfluous civil liability of 18C.
All who purport to favour free speech would do well to pay attention to the American founding fathers that specifically included a constitutional guarantee of free speech in their Constitution to prevent do-gooders deciding what’s acceptable when discussing social issues. Unfortunately in Australia we don’t have as strong a constitutional protection of free speech and so one can’t criticize our rulers or other residents easily, as evidenced by the fact that several politicians and judges have brought suit for defamation.
The best way to suppress ill-considered views is to argue against them in public forums, and to have privately funded bodies set up to fact-check claims. Bigots should be shunned from the popular social groups and non-violent measures such as boycotting their products should be taken to send them a message that their views are unacceptable.
Stopping racism and bigotry does not need 18C. There are many other ways to combat these evils without giving judges and politicians even more power than they already have.
A different version of this article appeared in Indian Link newspaper (August 6, 2014).