Censorship, guns and the right to arm bears

 

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This image is classified (S) for satire under FOMM’s censorship guidelines

I was idly wondering if I should have a go at George Christensen for pulling that silly, anti-greenies gun stunt at the firing range but self censorship kicked in. What if he knows where I live? I blanched. The process known in journalism school as ‘self censorship by osmosis’ still kicks in, even 18 years down the track.

You may have assumed I was about to jump into the very deep pool of acrimonious discourse about mass shootings, guns and gun control. Actually, no, there are enough rabid views out there from one side and the other. Perhaps you will have seen Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young’s repost of the kind of vile trolling one can attract by advocating for the environment (if not, don’t bother looking it up – Ed.)

Instead, I thought we should look at a worrisome instance of censorship; where a respected economic analyst/journalist had an article taken down by the national broadcaster, the ABC. Emma Alberice’s reasoned piece about corporate tax cuts was removed by ABC management, reportedly after complaints from on high about its alleged lack of impartiality. Alberice’s article argues there is no case for a corporate tax cut when one in five of Australia’s top companies don’t pay any tax.

After public criticism, the ABC deflected cries of ‘censorship’ saying removing the analysis and an accompanying news story were ‘entirely due to concerns about Ms Alberici’s compliance with ABC editorial policies that differentiate analysis from opinion’.

The analysis has since been scrutinised by experts and given the seal of approval. It has even been re-posted at a public affairs website owned by the eminent Australian, John Menadue, AO. You may recall Menadue. He started his working life as private secretary to Gough Whitlam (1960-67), before forging a career in the private sector then returning to public service in the mid-1970s. He has since led a distinguished career in both public and private life, most notably as an Australian diplomat.

Mr Denmore, one of Australia’s more incisive commentators on media and economics, wrote this in Alberici’s defence:

Mr Denmore (the pseuydonym of a former finance journalist), sees this issue as plain old-fashioned censorship.

He concludes that Alberice was merely offering insights, which have got the nod from some serious-headed economists, as ‘uncomfortable truths’, which those in high government office and boardrooms found too confronting.

Now, a week later, the ABC has reinstated* Emma Alberici’s analysis, albeit with some passages removed. As former ABC journalist Quentin Dempster reported in The New Daily, the author and her lawyers negotiated an agreed form of words for the reposted analysis.

The removal of Alberici’s original analysis coincided with a planned US visit by a high-level delegation of Australian business and government leaders.  The latest advocate of global  of ‘trickle-down economics’,+ President Donald Trump, will meet with PM Malcolm Turnbull today. No doubt Mal will be taking notes on the US president’s ‘open for business’ approach of slashing corporate tax rates from 35% to 21%. Australia’s more modest proposal, which is currently blocked in the Senate, is to reduce the corporate tax rate from 30% to 25%, over a decade.

+A term attributed to American comedian Will Rogers, who used the term derisively, as did later opponents of President Reagan’s ‘Reaganomics’.

The nation’s top business leaders, under the umbrella of the Business Council of Australia, will also meet with US governors and top-level US company executives. Australian State Premiers, including Queensland’s Annastasia Palaszczuk, will also attend.

Business Council head Jennifer Westacott told the Sydney Morning Herald she feels that Australian business is “in the weeds of politics” and

“Meanwhile in the US they’re getting on with it.”

Westacott and Council members support the Australian corporate tax cut proposal as the only policy that can deliver jobs and growth.

Opposition leader Bill Shorten is taking the hard line – a corporate tax cut cannot help ordinary people, at a time when companies are using tax havens and keeping wages low. Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen admits there is a case for company tax cuts, but said the LNP’s plan is unaffordable when the budget is in deficit.

The attempt to gag debate on this subject is, however, more worrying than the toadying going on in Washington. Australia ranks 19th in an international survey of countries judged on press freedoms. Reporters without Borders (RSF) maintains the list of 180 countries, many of whom oppress the media in far more serious ways than plain old censorship.

Australian media freedoms pursued by stealth

At first glance, 19th from 180 sounds good, but Australia has some issues, not the least of which is concentration of media ownership. The risk of self censorship is high, given the lack of job opportunities elsewhere. The 2017 survey notes that new laws in 2015 provide for prison sentences for whistleblowers who disclose information about defence matters, conditions in refugee centres or operations by the Australian Security Intelligence Organization.

I sometimes fret about a FOMM I wrote before these laws were introduced – an eyewitness account of US Marine movements after a chance encounter at a Northern Territory roadhouse.

“Aw shucks, we all just stopped to use the latrine, Ma’am.”

There’s more: a new telecommunications law has opened the door for surveillance of the metadata of journalists’ communications. Federal police raids on Labor Party parliamentarians in 2016 violated the confidentiality of sources. The Reporters without Borders report says the latter showed that authorities were “more concerned about silencing the messengers than addressing the issues of concern to the public that had been raised by their revelations”.

Meanwhile, a new draft national security bill seeks to restrict foreign interference in politics and national security. It contains secrecy and espionage provisions that could result in journalists being sent to prison for five years just for being in possession of sensitive information.

Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk, called the draft bill “oppressive and ill-conceived”.

“If this bill were passed, journalists receiving sensitive information they had not sought would automatically be in violation of the law. If this law had existed in the United States in 1974, the Watergate scandal would never have come to light.”

The free-wheeling nature of social media ensures that dissenting discourse does not stay banned for very long, though often exposed to a much smaller audience.

You may censor me, but never my T-shirts

I suppose now you want me to explain the relevance of the Right to Arm Bears T-shirt, eh? This now threadbare item was bought from a tourist shop on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls in 2010. I have been trying to find and purchase a replacement online. The manufacturer (Gildan) has similar T-shirts but none as fetching as the grumpy-looking bears wearing hunting jackets.

Wearing a shirt that makes a political point, however ironically, is an individual’s right in a free country to express an opinion. In my case it succinctly states my position on American gun laws, just as another T-shirt bought from a stall at Woodford, depicting a full-masted, 17th century sailboat (”Boat People”) says a lot about my attitude to refugees. Perhaps I should replace it with a Save the ABC shirt. Seems like the ABC needs all the friends it can find.

*Read Emma Alberici’s revised analysis here:

More on press freedom.

Cape Town water crisis a stark reminder for drought-prone Australia

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Water stress map: www.wri.org creative commons licence

Cape Town’s water crisis is making news around the world, but nowhere should it be ringing alarm bells more than in our neck of the woods – South East Queensland. It’s not that long ago since the Millenium Drought (2001-2009) reached a dramatic point in late 2007. Brisbane became the first Australian capital to endure Level 6 water restrictions at a time when the region’s main reservoir, Lake Wivenhoe, dropped to 15% capacity.

In Cape Town, South Africa, the town water crisis is so parlous that taps were to have been turned off on April 16, but conservation efforts by the city’s 4 million people has pushed this out to June 4. Cape Town introduced Level 6 restrictions last month. Reports from the South African capital sound a bit like conditions in South East Queensland, circa 2007-2008.

The so-called ‘Day Zero’ – when water in Cape Town’s six reservoirs drops to 13.5% – means taps will be turned off and residents will have to queue at standpipes for daily rations. (Think dystopian movies like Young Ones or The Worthy).

A news report this week described a sudden sharp shower in Cape Town (10mm or so). People were said to have rushed out of restaurants, bars and shops just to feel the rain on their faces.

Residents are being encouraged not only to limit their showers but also to have baby baths over the shower outlet to collect the grey water for recycling. As was the case in Brisbane, Cape Town residents are being discouraged from washing their cars and flushing toilets (unless really necessary).

According to our local utility, SEQWater, during our own water crisis in 2007-2008, Brisbane residents successfully halved daily water consumption to 140 litres per person under Level 6 restrictions, which included a ban on filling pools. Gardens could only be watered with buckets (with water collected from those three-minute showers). The motto, ‘if it’s yellow let it mellow’ was nailed to many a dunny door.

Conditions are tougher in Cape Town, where residents are limited to 50 litres each per day. The Guardian reported that Cape Town’s water crisis was accelerated by a drought so severe it was not expected for another 384 years. Plans to diversify with more boreholes and desalination plants are not scheduled until after 2020. The city’s biggest reservoir, Theewaterskloof Dam, has mostly evaporated or been sucked dry since the drought began in 2015. The shoreline is receding at the rate of 1.2 metres per week, The Guardian reported.

Tucked away in its two-page feature on Cape Town’s water crisis was the colourful but completely unhelpful statement from an un-named homophobic pastor who blamed the drought on gays and lesbians.

Back home, South East Queensland’s water crisis in 2007-2008 ushered in a new era of water management, resulting in the SEQ Water Strategy, which set a water consumption target of 200 litres per day.

SEQWater spokesman Mike Foster says the biggest single change since the Millenium Drought was construction of a 600 km reverse flow pipeline network that allows treated water to be moved around the region. The utility also now has a ‘drought-ready’ strategy which is triggered when storage falls to 70%. Currently the region’s dam levels overall are at 75.9%, so nobody is losing sleep over the average per capita daily water consumption of 184 litres.

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Baroon Pocket Dam spillway January 2011, image by Bob Wilson

FOMM wrote in March that water levels at our local dam, Baroon Pocket, had dropped to 46%. SEQWater supplemented the Sunshine Coast through an extended dry spell in 2017. Baroon Pocket Dam is now back to 78% (this photo of the spillway (January 2011) shows what can happen when 750mm falls in one month.

Blame it on climate change if you like, but the Sunshine Coast region has recorded below average annual rainfall in three of the last six years. What really did the damage was an eight-month stretch from July 2016 to February 2017 with an average rainfall per month of only 43mm. Source: Bureau of Meteorology monthly rainfall.

The South East Queensland Water Strategy aims to maintain regional water security into the future through management and operation of a water grid including a recycling facility and a desalination plant.

SEQWater owns and operates 26 dams, 51 weirs, and two borefields, including 12 key dams which supply as much as 90% of the region’s drinking water. Foster says SEQWater is now planning for far worse events than the Millenium Drought.

“Cape Town never thought they would experience more than two failed wet seasons in a row. South East Queenslanders never thought we would experience two failed wet season in a row either.

“But we went through the Millenium Drought and nearly a decade of failed wet seasons.”

Foster says that if SEQ was again faced with a Millenium Drought scenario, the strategies put in place would allow water supply to be maintained with medium level restrictions.

Meanwhile, in far more parched countries

You might feel relieved to learn that Australia was not one of 33 countries identified by the World Resources Institute as facing extreme water stress by 2040. However, Australia is one of six regions facing increased water stress, water demand, water supply, and seasonal variability over the next 22 years.

The top 11 water-stressed countries in 2040, each considered extremely highly stressed with a score of 5.0 out of 5.0, are projected to be Bahrain, Kuwait, Palestine, Qatar, San Marino, Singapore, United Arab Emirates, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Lebanon.

The 2015 report forecasts rapid increases in water stress across regions including eastern Australia, western Asia, the Mediterranean, the Middle East, the North American West, northern China, and Chile.

Nothing focuses the mind on the need to conserve water more than a summer camping holiday in a water-scarce national park. At the Bunya Mountains national park, east of Dalby, bore water is available in the national park camp ground. But it is labelled ‘non-potable’ and visitors are advised to boil and/or sterilise the water before using. We have a 60 litre tank under our caravan and we also take two 10-litre containers as back-up. Even so, after five days the van tank was less than half full and by the time we drove home on a stinking hot Sunday, we were sharing the last few mouthfuls from a water bottle.

Fine, just walk into the Kilcoy IGA and buy some bottled water, right? Maybe not. In Cape Town, supermarkets were forced to introduce a per customer limit after a big run on bottled water.

You may recall I was enthralled a while ago by Ben H Winters’ series, The Last Policeman. This cli-fi trilogy depicts the urban chaos developing as the population wait for the cataclysmic arrival of an asteroid which will destroy the planet.

Winters expertly conjured up underlying tensions between survivalists, conspiracy theorists or escapists who have “gone bucket list” or found easy ways to do themselves in. Then there are those with no particular moral code. As of the policemen in Winters’ second book says: “Just you wait until the water runs out…”

More reading: The 11 cities most likely to run out of water

http://bobwords.com.au/doesnt-rain-soon-mate/

http://bobwords.com.au/dont-drink-the-water/

 

Keeping Cabinet secrets safe

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Keeping Cabinet secrets, image by Ricky Lynch

Zounds, it’s only the ninth day of February and some records have been set, including the biggest ever accidental leaking of Cabinet secrets. In un-related news, the weather bureau said last Saturday (the 3rd) was the coldest February day in 100 years. We didn’t have a fire on because we had no dry wood, but some Hinterland folks were better organised. BOM said it was 18 degrees but with the rain, fog and all-day and all night drizzle, it felt like 16.

Our New Zealand, Canadian and UK friends and relatives would no doubt scoff at 16-18 degrees being described as chilly. But this is the sub tropics after all, and a week earlier we were enduring temperatures in the mid-30s.

Although it was comparatively balmy in Canberra last weekend (25/10, 27/14), the atmosphere was decidedly chillier. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull turned up for the ABC’s Insiders programme on Sunday vowing that “heads would roll” over the accidental disposal of two filing cabinets full of Cabinet secrets.

The cabinets went to a Canberra second hand office furniture store and were purchased by a citizen who later drilled them open. The (Parliamentary) Cabinet papers dating back 10 years, many marked Top Secret or AUSTEO (Australian Eyes Only), were handed to the ABC. The national broadcaster published nine stories based on the Cabinet secrets over the following days before explaining how they came into the broadcaster’s possession. The ABC deemed some material too sensitive for publication because of national security issues.

In the meantime, Australia’s spy agency ASIO visited ABC headquarters in Sydney and Brisbane and negotiated secure storage for the documents and eventually reclaimed the Cabinet secrets.

Patrick Weller, Griffith University’s Adjunct Professor at the Centre for Governance and Public Policy, judged that the use of the papers by the ABC seemed random. “The ABC was probably aware they had limited time to play the story before it became public and everyone else jumped aboard,” he wrote in The Conversation.

“The story was more about the filing cabinets than the cabinet papers, about the carelessness rather than the content,” Prof. Weller said.

Prof. Weller argued that the leaking of (historical) Cabinet papers is not such a disaster for governments in that they are often time specific, advising about matters long forgotten and maybe even now seen as minor incidents.

As the rules go, historical Cabinet papers are made available after 30 years; once a year in January we get to see another batch. They make for interesting reading if you are a historian or a political academic, but rarely anything more than that. Prof Weller says most Cabinet papers could be released within five years. Only a few would matter.

International eyes on sloppy Aussies

Nevertheless, the story caught the attention of the world’s media and Australia’s international allies – the US, Canada, the UK and New Zealand. The Washington Post commissioned a piece from Australian writer Richard Glover, who pithily summarised the Cabinet secrets affair as “Deep Drawers”.

As Glover observed, the key problem with the sale of unchecked government furniture is that anyone could have bought them, then handed their contents to a foreign agent or government.

He quoted Andrew Wilkie, a former intelligence analyst now sitting MP: “It sends a signal to our intelligence partners and allies that Australia might not be trustworthy when it comes to sharing information and intelligence with us.”

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said on Sunday the “shocking failure” would be fully investigated and the people responsible held accountable.

The idea that public servants, entrusted with highly confidential documents, would put them in a safe, lock the safe, lose the keys, and then sell the safe without checking what was in it – it beggars belief,” he told Insiders

It’s not just governments. Forbes magazine guest writer Mark Emery, director of a document management company, cited examples of big organisations mishandling confidential data. They included paper documents from four hospitals in Massachusetts found un-shredded in a public dumping facility. Another hospital in the same state admitted that personal records of 800,000 people were “missing”.

In Dallas, Texas, prisoners on parole were allowed to work off community service hours by sorting and shredding confidential documents, such as birth certificates and medical records. The practice was scrapped in 2012.

Richard Glover mentions similar circumstances in the 1990s when diplomatic bags were sent to be laundered at Wandsworth prison in the UK. In 1991, Canada’s diplomatic bags (full of top-secret NATO documents)  were mistakenly sent there too, and went missing soon after.

Mistakes happen, in business, in government and in our private lives. Who has not sent a sensitive email intended for one person to many people? The digital data system is just as prone to this kind of mishap as the traditional paper file system.

When computers first started becoming dominant in business (in the 1990s), we were sold the myth of the “paperless office”. Twenty years later, even a micro-business like mine goes through a couple of reams of paper per month. Most people I know who run any kind of consulting business buy a shredder and keep it working (don’t forget to take staples out first!)

Last year in Sydney and Melbourne there were reports of medical files and legal papers found dumped in unlocked kerbside recycling bins. When stories like this make it into the media, they should at least make individuals aware of the need for safeguarding sensitive information.

In the 1980s, I’d been court reporting in a country city for several years. I always archived my jumbo-size reporters’ notebooks – filled on both sides with untidy scrawl – a mix of shorthand and my unique form of notetaking. The second time we moved house, I looked at the four archive boxes full of musty notebooks and decided I had to get rid of them.

I found a waste recycling firm which offered “secure disposal”. They dropped off a big wheelie bin at my place, the lid secured with chains and a padlock. Once I’d filled it up, I called the firm and they picked up the bin. The firm assured me the notebooks would be “burned or pulped”. This exercise cost $75, but what a salve for my conscience. The majority of matters heard in court never make it into the news or are briefly summarised. More importantly, magistrates and judges may decide to supress reporting. There was an example of a district court trial where I took copious notes only to find out that the defendants’ and plaintiffs’ names could not be published. Later a blanket ban was issued and we couldn’t print anything. Notwithstanding, a good court reporter will write everything down – better to have too much than not enough.

So that’s why I was feeling suitably smug, all these years later, when the strange case of “Deep Drawers” hit the news. It’s hard enough to keep secrets secret in the era of digital ‘cloud’ storage, super hackers and whistle-blowers. But Richard Glover’s oblique reference to “Deep Throat” (nickname of the Watergate source), nevertheless reminds us that if we want to discard sensitive paper files, dispose of them as I did.

If that was all a little heavy for an early autumn Friday, here’s a few songs about February to help you cope with the cold (or the heat).

The list did not include February, a poignant tune by Dar Williams, but here it is anyway.

 

King decrees universal basic income

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King decrees universal basic income Image by Jason Train, Flickr https://flic.kr/p/f1BBQu

The question for the week is, what, apart from introducing a universal basic income, would you do if you were King, President or Prime Minister for a day? The term ‘King for a Day,’ which has inspired more than a dozen pop songs and an obscure opera by Verdi, implies that for 24 hours you get to be loved by the masses. You can loll about in a high-backed chair, gold orb and sceptre in hand, and be fawned over – mint juleps and the like.

In the Silly Season, media outlets tend to ask people questions like this, for a news slot or an inconveniently empty news hole next to a couple of ads. The ABC North Queensland asked a bunch of 11-year-old kids and some senior citizens what they’d do if they were Prime Minister for the day. Some of the answers were predictable enough. Sophie, 11 said, “Give everyone a day off so adults can take their kids out (and make theme parks free).” James (10) said he’d employ more scientists so Australia can get its research skills up (reserve that kid a cabinet post, circa 2030). Keira (11) wanted more national parks; Charlotte (11) wanted a program for kids to do work experience and be taught something they want to do.

If I could be King for a Day, I’d single out the dysfunctional tax and welfare systems and propose the following reforms:

Introduction of a universal basic income for all adults: $25k a year, indexed, no strings attached. Adults are free to earn money over and above the $25k, but it will be taxed on a sliding scale to the maximum rate for anyone earning more than, say, $150k.

Hypothetically, a previously unemployed or under-employed couple could, with a tax-free household income of $50,000, find jobs, start a business, renovate the spare bedroom, and join Airbnb and ramp up their annual income in a myriad of ways. Their only duty would be to the Tax Office.

Treasury boffins would be responsible for reforming the tax system to ensure the universal basic income could be funded and that as few people as possible are disadvantaged. Treasury could find ways to encourage business to work with this new system, for example offering generous tax rebates for research and development.

In my Kingdom, all forms of social welfare would be replaced by a new regime, overseen by the Office of Financial and Social Opportunity and Incentivisation (NOOFASOI). The office would oversee payment of the UBI and iron out the inevitable wrinkles in a new and untested system.

This is not just a FOMM flight of fancy

Countries as diverse as Finland, France, Ireland, Norway, the US, Canada, New Zealand, Holland, Iceland, India and Brazil are either talking about universal basic income or trialling it in one form or another. Switzerland had a referendum, and while the people said no, it shows how front of mind this issue has become. Indeed, Australia has a university-sponsored programme to research income security.

And the Parliament of Australia published this comprehensive yet concise policy paper by Don Henry, for those who want to find out more.

The media went on a feeding frenzy recently after the end of the first year of Finland’s two-year trial to dole out a subsistence amount (no strings attached) to 2,000 unemployed Finns. The Finnish government (wisely) is letting the experiment run and will only look at it the results when the trial ends.

I would not pretend to understand the complexities of financing a universal basic income and the social engineering required to make it work.

An OECD report in 2017 said that despite well-publicised campaigns for a Basic Income, no country has put a BI in place as a pillar of income support for the working age population.

“The recent upsurge in attention to BI proposals in OECD countries, including those with long-standing traditions of providing comprehensive social protection, is therefore remarkable,” the report says.

It’s not so remarkable when one looks into the growing inequality that is being spawned by job losses as a result of automation and digital disruption. As Oxfam said last week, 42 people hold as much wealth as the 3.7 billion people in the poorest half of the world’s population.

This is clearly not sustainable. 

From where I sit, the domination of the contract or ‘gig economy’ and a part-time, casual workforce has left the welfare system behind. Moreover, the welfare bureaucracy is unrealistically punitive, in that it forces the unemployed to prove they are pursuing fast-disappearing jobs to qualify for support.

Mainstream conservative publications including The Economist and the Financial Times have canvassed the UBI debate. As the FT said, it “strengthens a sense that the traditional welfare state is no longer fit for purpose”.

The advances in artificial intelligence (AI) are threatening many jobs around the world, the FT said, adding that most workers have come to accept that the job for life has gone for good.

But if the intent of a UBI is to lift people out of poverty and ensure wealthier people pay their fair share of tax, it’s not that simple.

The OECD report concludes that introducing a UBI in countries with strong social support systems would not solve poverty and would lead to higher taxes. Others warn against dismantling welfare systems, which, however flawed, are at least a safety net for the poor and disadvantaged.

George Zarkadakis, an AI engineer and writer, outlined some of the flaws in an article for Huffington Post. Zarkadakis dismissed talk of taxing the cash reserves of fully automated companies, saying this would affect their ability to invest and innovate; they would lose their competitive position to low-tax or zero tax regimes. Likewise, he was sceptical about the hi-tech and energy companies that are lobbying for (and prepared to help fund) a UBI, arguing that this would give them undue political influence.

The ancient ideal of a UBI (Thomas More’s social satire, Utopia, published in 1516), frees creative people and artisans around the fringes of the commercial world to develop their skills without financial pressure. The ‘shall we tell Centrelink?’ poser goes into the dustbin of history, along with the often inaccurate stereotype of the ‘goddamn, long-haired hippy dole bludger’. People on disability pensions would no longer have to get stressed about the fluctuating cycles of their illnesses. For example, a person receiving the blind pension (which is not means tested), can lose it if they recover some sight. There is also the travesty where workers made redundant find out that 30 years of paying tax counts for nothing. Unless their payout is locked up in super, they’ll have to spend every cent of it before dipping into the public purse.

Even a theoretical discussion about a UBI should alert us to many of the anomalies in our welfare system, which arise from outdated legislation and an institutionalised idea that people are out to rort the system.

As for my Kingly privileges for a day (you can tell how far along we are with ‘The Crown’), I was so busy hunting grouse, inspecting broodmares, dallying with ladies-in-waiting and whatnot, I never got around to doing anything. Terribly sorry.

More reading: Hardship in Australia