Plebiscites for the huddled masses

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Rainbow curtains by Maxbphotography https://flic.kr/p/RJ6yMy

Did you know that the good citizens of Puerto Rico voted in a plebiscite whether to allow the island territory to become the 51st state of the USA? Despite a low voter turnout (23%), the $15 million non-binding plebiscite achieved a 97% yes vote for statehood. But now the fate of PR lies in the hands of the US government, which has no legal obligation to follow through.

The issue for Puerto Rico’s 3.42 million citizens is the country’s insupportable debt, worsening poverty and rapidly declining population. The Pew Research Centre says the childhood poverty level among Hispanics of Puerto Rican origin is 58%, the figure based on a median household income of $18, 626. Puerto Ricans living on the US mainland, meanwhile, have a household income of $33,000 (if born on the island) or $44,000 if born in the US. The childhood poverty level is 44% and 30% respectively. Little wonder almost half a million Puerto Ricans moved to the US between 2005 and 2015.

As you may have read (unless living under the proverbial rock), the Australian Government wants to hold a national plebiscite on same-sex marriage. Despite the Senate blocking draft legislation this week, the government aims to proceed with a $122 million postal ballot. This is so we can find out for sure if what the polls have been saying since 2011 are right – that more than 50% of the people want marriage equality.

But as per the outcome in Puerto Rico, there’s no guarantee a government will act on the result of a plebiscite, which, unlike a referendum, is not binding.

Australia has only ever held three plebiscites: two on conscription in 1916 and 1917 (the No vote prevailed), and a third in 1977 which offered a selection of mediocre tunes from which to select a national song. You will note here the bastardry of the choices, with Advance Australia Fair (which attracted 43.2% of the votes) distancing Waltzing Matilda (28.3%) and God Save the Queen (18.7%), which the Fraser government decided to keep as the official national anthem). Another 9.8% voted for Song of Australia (Caroline Carleton/Carl Linger). Close to 653,000 people voted for this song, but if you can hum me a few bars I’ll walk backwards to Conondale.

National songs aside (Bob Hawke reinstated Advance Australia Fair as the National Anthem in 1984), plebiscites are only ever held (in Australia) to decide issues which do not require a change to the constitution. Elsewhere in the world, as noted by election analyst Antony Green, the terms plebiscite and referenda are interchangeable. Some countries (New Zealand, even) hold citizen-initiated plebiscites to decide a range of issues, like whether to smack a child or not.

The prominent constitutional lawyer George Williams, explaining why plebiscites are so rare in Australia said: “They go against the grain of a system in which we elect parliamentarians to make decisions on our behalf”.

Professor Williams said referendums necessarily polarise debate, as happened in Ireland when a yes/no proposition was put to the community.

As a result, even if the referendum did succeed, it may leave bitterness and division in its wake,” he wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald.

National University of Ireland lecturer Brian Tobin said the Irish experience showed that putting a human rights issue to a national vote is a crude means of legalising same-sex marriage. “It forces a historically oppressed minority to literally have to plead with the majority for access to marriage in the months prior to the vote. It also provides a platform for those opposed to misinform the public and air anti-gay views.”

Labor Senator Penny Wong spoke against the plebiscite proposal in Parliament this week, saying it will expose same-sex couples and their children to hatred. It’s a fair argument, given that Australia seems well behind the times when it comes to giving minorities a fair go.

Wake up, Australia!

So far, 23 countries have legalised same-sex marriage since the Netherlands took the first step in 2001. Only Ireland has put the question to a popular vote. As SBS News reporter Ben Winsor noted in June this year, there are now 670 million people living in countries where same-sex marriage is a legal right.

In 2015, the Supreme Court of the United States declared that the constitution protected the rights of citizens to marry, regardless of gender. It was the same year that Ireland voted 62% in support of same-sex marriage.

Nevertheless, Northern Ireland has not passed same-sex marriage legislation. The Church of England remains opposed to it, despite ongoing internal debate, and gay marriage has become a legal minefield in the aforementioned Puerto Rico.

The Australian government could resolve the issue simply and cheaply by holding a free ballot for members of parliament. This would cost the taxpayer precisely nothing and would avoid months of divisive debate.

Facebook’s Rainbow Warriors

Social media was aflame on Wednesday night as people ridiculed the costly notion of a (voluntary) plebiscite. Many people offered findings on what else $122 million could buy (chicken nuggets for all, said one post).

A cursory search by yours truly turned up another fascinating nugget: The cost of the same-sex marriage postal ballot is only $6 million more than the 2017-2018 Budget approved last month by Noosa Shire Council. The Shire covers 868.7 square kilometres and has a population of more than 52,000 residents.

But getting back to Puerto Rico, an unincorporated territory of the United States located in the northeast Caribbean Sea. Then White House press secretary Sean Spicer said of the June 11 vote, “now that the people have spoken on Puerto Rico, this is something that Congress has to address.” But Spicer is gone and Congress has an easy ‘out’ pointing to the low (23%) voter turnout. The key reason Puerto Rico wants Statehood is to be protected by US bankruptcy laws.

As Carlos Ivan Gorrin Peralta, a professor at the InterAmerican University of Puerto Rico told The Atlantic magazine, “To make a long story short, the prospects (of nationhood) are between zero and negative-10 percent.”

I’m not suggesting that Australians will boycott the (voluntary) postal ballot to that degree. But the Puerto Rican plebiscite shows what can happen when governments try to railroad people into something they do not want.

In 2011, then Opposition Leader Tony Abbott proposed a plebiscite to test Australians’ support for a carbon tax. This was variously described in the media as “junk politics” and “an expensive, bad idea”.

Moreover, Abbott said that if the plebiscite showed support for a carbon tax he would ignore it anyway.

If there’s a clear sign Aussies are fed up with the dicking about* over the same-sex marriage debate, it was reflected in the much-retweeted front page of the NT News.

The Murdoch-owned Northern Territory tabloid set aside its usual croc-shock/blood in the water approach. Instead its masthead was decked out in rainbow colours.

Under an image of two hands intertwined the NT News declared: “The legalisation of same sex-marriage is inevitable. It’s time to end this farce”.

Cool. Now can we have our chicken nuggets?

*dicking about’ – to do absolutely nothing constructive and be completely useless to the point where it can aggravate others. (Urban Dictionary).

 

Trump, Clinton and the third candidate

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Aussie tourist poses outside Trump World Tower, Manhattan. Photo by Laurel Wilson

Who, except Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, would want to be leader of a nation today? The manic, 24/7 pressure of life in the top job makes old men (and women) out of youthful candidates in no time. At home, we saw the pressure tell in quick succession on Rudd, Gillard, Abbott and now Malcolm Turnbull, who no longer resembles the debonair bon vivant who aspired to high political station. In the US, Barack Obama’s eight years in the job is etched into his face.

Yet the aspirant leaders keep coming. Hillary wants the top job, even though she saw what it did to her husband, not to mention Monica Lewinsky, these days engaged in anti-bullying campaigns.

Donald Trump wants to make America great again (though no-one has yet proven when the US was ever great). Former Australian PM Tony Abbott was cited (from afar), telling high-ranking people overseas he planned to make a leadership comeback. Whether he did or didn’t say this, on his return, Abbott and Turnbull clashed jousting sticks in the House, prompting gasps and gossip amongst Canberra lobbyists.

Who’d be a world leader? US presidents get asked to make awful decisions, to wit Harry Truman’s decision to drop atomic bombs on two Japanese cities in 1945, killing between 130,000 and 226,000 people. Harry didn’t drop the bombs, but it was his head that nodded when the generals asked him if they should.

Even Australian Prime Ministers are asked to make unpalatable decisions which may come back to haunt future generations. Bob Menzies bowed to pressure from Great Britain, who wanted to test atomic bombs in Australia’s western desert. After all, they could hardly do it in Manchester or Liverpool. People would have complained.

Some impressions of this seldom-scrutinised period in our history are captured in Collisions, an 18-minute multimedia film by Lynette Wallworth. The Monthly’s Quentin Sprague reviewed the ‘immersive’ film which premiered in Adelaide and is playing as a ‘virtual reality experience’ at Melbourne’s Australian Centre for the Moving Image until mid-January. Nyarra Nyarri Morgan, a young man in the 1950s when he witnessed the mushroom cloud above the desert, recalls its impact: “the surrounding waterholes boiled and kangaroos fell to the ground under a drifting blanket of ash.”  Later, when people became sick after eating the fallen kangaroos, they mused: “What god would do such a thing.”

Harry Truman recalls approving the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In a biography written by his daughter, Margaret Truman, Harry’s decision to over-rule the general who believed the Japanese would surrender under the onslaught of conventional bombs, was aimed at saving Japanese and American lives. Almost 80,000 died after the firebombing of Tokyo, part of a planned programme of incendiary bombing.

“It was not an easy decision to make,” Truman said. “I did not like the weapon. But I had no qualms if in the long run millions of lives could be saved.”

After a successful testing in New Mexico, Truman approved the bombing of four targets – Hiroshima, Kokura, Niigata and Nagasaki

Given the history, you do wonder about people like Donald Trump, a self-described multi-billionaire who has no material need, apparently, to live in the White House. There are bigger and better mansions and easier jobs than making America great again, or even for the first time.

Why would he want to be the one with the power to pick up the red telephone? There is no guarantee either that Hillary Clinton wouldn’t pick up the red phone.

The media is making much of the Clinton-v-Trump clash, mostly ignoring a third candidate, Libertarian Gary Johnson and his running mate Bill Weld. Johnson and Weld say they have a master plan to sneak the presidency from under the noses of Trump and Clinton.

The Washington Times reported on Monday the pair say they can change history and win the election through a combination of quirky political circumstances, voting variables and polling inaccuracies. Polling data shows Johnson and Weld have greater support in 20 states than the margin between the Republican and the Democrat, neither of whom will find it easy to snare the necessary 270 votes. One or two states could determine the outcome.

Former Republican adviser Bill Whalen agrees there is a scenario where neither Hilary Clinton nor Donald Trump wins the presidency. He told ABC Radio’s Eleanor Hall on Wednesday much hinged on the outcome in Utah, where candidate Evan McMullen has snared enough votes to win that state. It could be that the House of Representatives will decide who is best suited to the Oval Office: Trump could be deemed ‘unsuitable’ and Clinton’s election risky, as it could spark a constitutional crisis if a Federal investigation finds against her. Enter stage left, Evan McMullen, an inscrutable former CIA operative who has a theoretical chance at the White House.

Here is yet another reason to cite The Simpsons. “Citizen Kang(season 8), still rules as the best piss-take of the two-party political system. Homer is abducted by aliens Kang and Kodos who demand he takes them to his leader. When Homer explains about the (1996) election, the aliens kidnap presidential candidates Bob Dole and Bill Clinton, placing them in suspended animation and assuming their forms through “bio-duplication.” The one-eyed aliens plan to ensure one of them will become the next leader succeeds, despite their alienating habits of walking hand in hand, drooling green slime and talking in robotic voices (“Klin-ton”). Kang is subsequently elected, enslaving humanity into building a giant ray gun, to be aimed at an un-specified planet:

Meanwhile, the global media obsession with Trump vs Clinton, which promises to continue until January, provides perfect cover for our conniving government, which seems intent on homogenising the arts and making sure people who tried to get to Australia by boat go (somewhere else), and never return. Comedian Lucy Valentine suggested they should make this law retrospective to 1788.

Of lesser significance, maybe, but mean-spirited nevertheless, Education Minister Simon Birmingham announced cuts to student loan funding for 57 creative arts diploma courses including circus, screen acting, stained glass, art therapy and jewellery. Additionally, the government capped loans for creative diplomas to $10,000 compared to $15,000 for agriculture and engineering.

Birmingham said the changes were made to focus on courses which would ‘benefit Australia economically in the 21st century’.

“Currently there are far too many courses that are being subsidised that are used simply to boost enrolments, or provide “lifestyle” choices, but don’t lead to work.”

Predictably, this decision brought forth a torrent of commentary on social media, ranging from reasoned debate to outright vitriol.

This issue, however, has slipped behind the international smokescreen which is the US presidential election campaign; a litany of (alleged) lies and counter-lies, insults and counter insults, accusations of defamation and one lawyer’s letter, published in the New York Times, which is very much worth reading.

If Donald Trump does not win the election, he has promised to sue everyone who has accused him of behaviour unbecoming of a US presidential candidate. It will be a long list.

He should probably just go back to building high-rise towers, hotels and golf courses and making money. He claims to be pretty good at that.

Housing bubbles here and abroad

(New housing in Pokeno, 57 kms south of Auckland city. Risky motorway photo taken by Bob, who will go to any length for FOMM readers!)

Kiwis and Aussies aged 45 and over share one obsessive thought at this moment in time: how will our kids ever be able to afford their own home? Unless the housing bubble bursts, they probably never will be able to, even when the Boomers die off and leave their kids a residual estate.

The housing market both here and in Aotearoa has got away from humble wage earners. On my all-too quick visit to the old country, Auckland’s steaming hot housing market was all anyone could talk about. After a January dip in median prices (a reaction to new tax laws introduced in late 2015), the March figures revealed a $100k hike in the median price to $820,000.

Stories abound of people who bought a cottage in a then-dowdy Auckland suburb for $100k or less in the 1980s and sold last week for $1 million. The New Zealand Herald’s front page on April 13 proclaimed “Here we go again” to head a story about Auckland’s median house price. The story continued on page 3 where Labour Housing spokesman Phil Twyford said the $70k increase in the median price in just one month was almost one and a half times the median income in Auckland.

Not surprisingly, investors accounted for 44% of the 3000+ sales used to determine this alarming figure. This is similar to the Australian trend, where for the past two years just over 50% of housing loans have been made to investors.

Buyers with cash and/or equity are surging into the Auckland housing market and many pundits feel it is inevitable that it will join Sydney in having a $1 million median house price.

Everyone I spoke to told me that Auckland/New Zealand has the highest income to mortgage ratio in the world. The crusty old journo in me demanded that this be verified. The International Monetary Fund, which keeps track of housing costs vs income, indeed placed New Zealand 1st, ahead of Germany, Estonia and Austria. In sixth place came the UK and in 9th place Australia.

The ratio compares housing valuations to average income, the higher rankings showing that house prices have risen much faster than income. (Conversely, if you can score a job in Spain, where unemployment is still running at 22%, you can buy a cheap apartment and go running with the bulls in Pamplona).

If you were wondering how this is relevant, Spain’s economy went pear-shaped after their real estate market tanked in 2008. Caveat emptor!

The problem when housing markets get hot is the price rises are not matched by the prospective buyers’ incomes. In 2015, the median house price in Auckland increased $83,000, against a median income of $46,800. The data for this NZ Herald story, headed “Does your house earn more than you do?” was sourced from NZ Work and Income and the New Zealand Real Estate Institute.

In Sydney’s over-heated market, house prices are up to 12 times median income, according to a Sydney Morning Herald report in November. In mid-2015, the median Sydney house price was a headline $1,004,767, against a median household income of $85,067.

Meanwhile in Aotearoa, those determined to get their toe on the first rung of the housing ladder are fleeing south, as far as Huntly (a former mining town 97.2 km from the big smoke on State Highway 1), and north to Wellsford 77.3kms away. The plan is to buy, commute, save and over time upgrade closer to Auckland.

Pokeno, once a small Waikato hamlet just outside Auckland city limits, is now a forest of houses, if not nestling, then sprawling over the once green rolling hills. New housing is evident on both sides of the four-lane motorway which now extends to Hamilton and beyond. I had a trawl through real estate.com and was unable to find much new in Pokeno under $600k. So the early birds have already got their worms and now it is just another suburb of Auckland, a 57 km commute to the city.

Others have absconded to small towns like Te Aroha, Wairoa and Dannevirke, where a decent house and block of land (known as a ‘sixtion’) can be had for less than $150k.

New Zealand has few barriers in the way of investors – until recently there was no capital gains tax (as such) and no inheritance tax. Prime Minister John Keys introduced new measures in last year’s Budget, one of which was a tax payable if the (investment) property was sold within two years of purchase. Keys refused to call this a capital gains tax, saying New Zealand already had one, but the government has to prove “intent” to make a profit.

New Zealand also tightened its foreign investment rules and now requires all foreign buyers to declare a tax identification number from their home country. Kiwis don’t call it negative gearing, but as in Australia, expenses relating to investment housing (depreciation, interest, maintenance etc) can be offset against rental income.

Those who support a continuation of negative gearing in Australia claim that if it was abolished the property market would collapse. The Real Estate Institute of Queensland (REIQ) said 79% of its members and landlord clients believed that investors would abandon the strategy if Labor’s negative gearing changes were brought in. (Labor proposes to restrict negative gearing to new homes and ‘grandfather’ or exempt existing investment houses.)

REIQ Chairman Rob Honeycombe said the findings confirmed that changes to negative gearing would be disastrous for the Queensland property market.

“That will have a crippling effect on house values and on the rental market, where the private rental market plays such a critical role in keeping rents affordable,” he said.Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, no doubt sensing the pre-election atmosphere, has declared he will make no changes to negative gearing in next week’s Budget. The estimated 1.5 million people who invest in residential property would be sure to vote for the politician with the least disagreeable tax policy.

Meanwhile, the 25-44 age group, once the heart of the first home buyer cohort, is struggling to save for a deposit, faced by high rents and stiff competition for affordable housing. Assuming they could find a house in Sydney or Auckland for $700,000, it still means they have to save $140,000 for a deposit (about 14 years at $200 a week).

Their plight creates a dilemma for well-intentioned property investors, those who have simply decided that bricks and mortar is the best form of investment. Sure, they get the tax breaks, but they also have to take the investment risk in the first place and then the secondary risk that they might get the tenants from hell. The third risk may be a Pamplona-type charge for the exits if Labor gets up and changes the rules.

Part of the solution lies with the 814,000 Australians (2011 estimate), who have paid off their mortgages. Whatever their circumstances, they are the only people who, either by gifting money or using their equity for a loan, can help their adult children buy a house. Waiting for the bubble to burst is another option. Or you could move to Spain…there are apartments in Pamplona priced from 39,000 euros (about $A58,000). Buena suerte con eso

 (Thanks to Laurel (She Who Also Sometimes Writes) for being a splendid substitute when I was abroad )