Take me to your leader – the quest continues

(Leader image, old man in park taking time out from politics and spin), Bob Wilson circa 1978

Imagine a flying saucer lands in your back yard and an alien (drooling or not) alights.

“Take me to your leader,” it telepathically commands, as it is from an advanced civilisation, intent upon savings ours.

“Aw yeah, mate.” (pointing). “That’s our leader over there, the one in the striped designer shirt, mingling with the homeless folk.”

If you dig around on the Internet long enough you’ll find lists of world leaders people would rather not introduce to their granny, never mind to an alien. The lists are usually described as ‘the 10 or 20 worst world leaders’ and include despots like North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir.

Alas Malcolm Turnbull, PM of Australia; the only list I found him on was the ‘hottest heads of state’ leader ladder, languishing in 12th place behind total spunks like Canada’s Justin Trudeau, New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, France’s Emmanuel Macron or Haiti’s Jovenal Moise.

One ought not to touch on politics when striking up conversations at Christmas parties. At one such event, I ventured that the Australian Federal Government was having an ‘Annus Horribilis’ and seemed incapable of making firm and sensible decisions.

I had voiced what I thought was a commonly-held theory, but soon found out what I should have known; on average, at least one-third of people voted for that motley group of indecisive dual citizens who went to work on just 64 days in 2017.

“So what do you think about Turnbull’s piss-weak energy policy?” I began at another Xmas do, when I probably should have said, “Strange weather for this time of year, don’t you think?”

That person moved away, but left me a clean run at the cheese platter.

From my point of view, the LNP in Canberra blundered from one disaster to another in 2017, momentarily making itself look good by introducing marriage equality laws, which in truth should have been enshrined in 1980-something. The poll was estimated to cost the taxpayer $122 million and then we endured weeks of angst while the same-sex marriage law was debated, after 61.6% of the 79.5% of people who voted had told them that’s what they wanted in the first place.

The great shame, or should I say sham, is that the Turnbull government, deliberately or not, distracted the people from more serious issues (climate change, the Adani coal mine, Manus Island), by turning the same-sex marriage debate into an expensive, non-binding referendum-style exercise. They could have used one of those 64 sitting days to have a free vote. We’d have achieved the same result and deployed the $122 million to more laudable outcomes (like finding emergency accommodation for the 6,000 or so Australians who sleep rough each night).

We’ve seen from recent State elections and Federal by-elections that the people are not happy with the mainstream parties. The drift towards the Greens on one side and One Nation on the other mimics the rise of populism the world over.

Political commentator Michelle Grattan, speaking at the launch of The Conversation Yearbook in Brisbane, said so many people in Australia are disgusted with politics they are ‘‘tuning out”

“People think (politicians) are behaving badly, because they are behaving badly. They (politicians) alienate the public – they are aware of it, but it’s beyond them to regain the people’s trust.”

Grattan said focus groups in north Queensland, ahead of the State elections, saw through Malcolm Turnbull’s ploy to cancel a week’s parliamentary sittings. This was ostensibly to allow the House and the Senate to resolve the citizenship issue and to work through the same sex marriage debate.

But here’s the thing: the NQ focus groups didn’t much like Malcolm Turnbull, but neither did they warm to Bill Shorten as an alternative leader.

The Queensland election continued a national, if not international trend: voters are fed up with mainstream parties and are casting their votes elsewhere.

In Queensland, 30.9% of first preference votes went to minority parties, while the informal vote was higher than average, at 4.58%. In the Bennelong Federal by-election, 10 minor parties grabbed 19.15% of the first preference primary vote, although that did not stop the LNP’s John Alexander (45.05%) taking the seat.

So what else happened in 2017?

While it wasn’t a party political issue, the rise of the social media hashtag #MeToo movement had its high point when Time Magazine chose #MeToo as its influential “Person of the Year”.

If you had been living under a rock, #MeToo is a movement where women who have been harassed, assaulted, bullied and otherwise vilified (primarily by men), came out and stood with their sisters.

The movement started with casting-couch revelations about Hollywood movie producer Harvey Weinstein and flushed out similarly bad behaviour all over the world. The Australia media chimed in, outing former TV gardening host Don Burke for a series of alleged indiscretions. Sydney’s Telegraph made an allegation about Australian actor Geoffrey Rush, who responded with a writ for defamation.

On a more positive note, 2017 turned up an unlikely winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. The prize went to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). The organization received the award for drawing attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons.

There were other examples of positive news in 2017, amid the political scandals, terrorist attacks, humanitarian crises and natural disasters.

A December 19 report by Katrina Sichlau, News Corp Australia Network, found that renewable energy employed 10 million people worldwide.

(Aside – that makes the Queensland Premier’s contested claim that the proposed Adani coal mine would employ 10,000 people look rather sad).

The same article said France and Britain had launched a Clean Air Plan which will make sense to people who have visited either country this year or last. In a year when Queensland’s land-clearing reached Brazil-like proportions, Pakistan planted one billion trees.

If I may add to this optimistic list, New Zealand elected a woman in her 30s as Prime Minister (Jacinda Ardern), largely at the whim of (Queen)-maker Winston Peters, a veteran politician who saw sense in forming an alliance with the savvy young Labour leader.

Probably the less we say about Donald Trump the better, as he seems to thrive on publicity, be it good or bad. Trump continues to use Twitter like a flame-thrower, this year setting diplomatic fires in North Korea, Israel, and Germany and within the US itself.

Trump reportedly plans to go ahead with a visit to the UK in 2018, despite the recent twitter row with UK PM Theresa May. If you’ll recall, Trump retweeted videos posted by radical right group Britain First, inaccurately blaming Muslims in the UK for terrorist attacks.

There has been much misreporting about Trump’s ‘working’ visit to the UK. The White House at one point thanked the Queen for her “gracious invitation” to meet with President Trump at Buckingham Palace. The Guardian Weekly reported on December 15 that a formal state visit was not envisaged. “The Queen is likely to be preoccupied with preparations for a Commonwealth summit.”

As myth-buster Snopes points out, there is a long standing tradition that the Queen does not intervene in political disputes.

We wish you all an ‘annus mirabilis’ in 2018.


A few myths about refugees

Sri Lankan and Tamil refugees
Sri Lankan and Tamil Refugees image by climatalk.in https://flic.kr/p/eEQYBg

My conscience would be burdened if anyone went to the polls on July 2 believing some of the persistent myths and misunderstandings about asylum seekers and refugees. First, let’s set out a few facts in the interests of perspective:

  • Asylum seekers are people seeking international protection but whose claims for refugee status have not yet been determined;
  • Australia is the only nation with a policy of indefinite mandatory detention for people it has identified as illegal or irregular arrivals. This policy was introduced by then Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating in 1992 (it had bipartisan support);
  • Refugees receive the same social security benefits as permanent residents, although they are exempt from the standard social security waiting period that applies to migrants;

These facts sit uneasily amidst the seriously heated debate between refugee advocacy groups and supporters of groups like Rise Up Australia, the Australian Liberty Alliance and Pauline Hanson’s One Nation.

Many Australians believe (and resent) the story perpetuated by hoax emails that refugees receive more Social Security payments than permanent residents. You might also hear that refugees are given (free) houses, cars and big screen TVs, the latter one of the first things spotted on A Current Affair’s expose on Nauru. (Gasp. They have microwaves too).

There is also a persistent myth perpetuated by talkback radio jocks and right-wing commentators that our shoreline (all 25,670 kilometres of it), will be over-run if the current border protection policy does not remain in place.

Over-stayers outnumber boat people

In Australia, visa over-stayers greatly outnumber asylum seekers. According to an Immigration Department report, Migration Trends 2012-2013, 44,800 visitors and 10,720 students overstayed their visit, led by people from China (7,690), Malaysia (6,420), the US (5,220) and the UK (3,780).

The Department of Immigration and Border Protection’s statistical report for April 30, 2016 says there were 1,695 people in immigration detention facilities, including 1,509 in immigration detention on the mainland and 186 in immigration detention on Christmas Island. However, the report also states that there were 469 people, including 56 women and 50 children, at the Nauru Regional Processing Centre and 898 men at the Manus Island RPC. So in sum, the total numbers of people in detention (including on and off shore) at the behest of the Federal Government is 3,062.

Of the 1,695 people in detention on the mainland, 60% (1,025) arrived in Australia lawfully but were subsequently taken into immigration detention either for over staying or breaching their visa conditions. 548, or fewer than 40%, were ‘Irregular Maritime Arrivals’ (some terminology refers to these as ‘Illegals’).

On face value, Labor’s asylum seeker and refugee policies are not that far removed from those of the LNP.  Both remain committed to offshore processing, regional settlement and stopping people smuggling by turning boats away. However, Labor has a plan to provide $450 million over three years to support the UN’s refugee agency. Labor will abolish temporary protection visas, re-instate access to the Refugee Review Tribunal and abolish the Independent Assessment Authority.  Labor states it will also reinstate a statutory requirement for the Department of Immigration and Border Protection to report on how many claims were processed within 90 days of a completed application being received. This ‘90 day rule’ was removed by the Abbott Government last year.

Labor also wants to increase Australia’s annual humanitarian intake from the current 13,750 to 27,000 per annum by 2025. The Australian Greens want to ramp this number up to 50,000, while the LNP aims to increase it to 18,000 ‘within a couple of years’.

In September 2015 the Abbott Government responded to the Middle East humanitarian crisis by announcing that Australia would take an additional 12,000 refugees fleeing Syria and Iraq.

In February this year, the Sydney Morning Herald reported on Canada’s exceptional response to Syrian refugees, resettling 20,490 in just three months. Labor called on Immigration Minister Peter Dutton to explain why, as revealed in a Senate Estimates hearing, that Australia had resettled only 26 Syrian refugees since the emergency intake was announced. A spokesman for Mr Dutton said the government was conducting rigorous security and other checks that could not be rushed.

Social Services Minister Christian Porter has since told the ABC (on April 6), that 187 refugees had now been resettled in Australia and an additional 1,600 visas had been issued overseas. Meanwhile, Canada’s intake of refugees from Syria topped 26,000.

The indefatigable Refugee Action Collective is staging one last peak hour vigil next Thursday outside Immigration Minister Peter Dutton’s office on Gympie Road Strathpine. The aim is to bring the Minister to account and remind people of comments made on Sky News when he criticised Labor and Greens’ proposals to lift the intake to 27,000 or 50,000 respectively.

“For many people, they won’t be numerate or literate in their own language let alone English,” he told Sky News.

“These people would be taking Australian jobs, there’s no question about that.”

Greens lead refugees reform agenda

The Australian Greens is the only political party with a truly reformist answer to the asylum seeker/refugee question. The Greens say it is a better (economic) proposition to allow refugees to live in the community. The Parliamentary Budget Office estimates the average cost of allowing someone to live in the general community at $35,000, compared to $225,000 on Manus Island or Nauru.

The Greens’ plan to close down offshore detention on Manus Island and Nauru and to close ‘the worst’ Australian detention centres on the mainland and on Christmas Island. They would establish 30-day time limits on detention in Australia, with ‘periodic judicial review’ of any detention thereafter.

A few of the minor parties are less forgiving: The Rise Up Party says it would implement legislation that will send all illegal asylum seekers back to where they came from’.

Pauline Hanson’s One Nation has a policy of ‘zero net immigration’. By that is meant, if a migrant goes home, you let another one in. Sustainable Australia also has a ‘low immigration’ policy.

The Australian Liberty Alliance is running candidates in the Upper and Lower houses for the first time on a platform which includes stopping the ‘Islamisation of Australia’. You can read about the ALA here and watch their 15-second advertisement which has been banned from television. *

All you need is love (ra-ta-ta-ta-tah)

Sigh. It’s Refugee Week, did you know? I often wonder how this country lost its multicultural way after we welcomed and resettled 57,700 Vietnamese refugees between 1975 and 1982. Of these, only 2,100 or so were unauthorised arrivals by boat, although many more set out by sea and never made it to shore. The 1971 Census revealed there were just 700 Vietnamese in Australia.

Fifteen years later it was 80,000 and at the 2011 Census, the numbers of Vietnamese-born living in Australia rose to 185,039. Despite language barriers and religious differences (the main religion is Mahayana Buddhism), these new migrants were widely accepted.

Imagine an Australia without Luke Nguyen (chef and TV presenter), Anh Do (comedian), Nam Le (author), Caroline Tran (Triple J announcer), Hieu Van Le, (Lieutenant Governor of South Australia) or Vincent Long Van Nguyen (Parramatta’s Catholic Archbishop).

The Beatles were strongly opposed to the Vietnam War, or rather, western involvement in it. At the peak of the conflict, John Lennon wrote a famous song, which in Vietnam is known as Tất cả những gì bạn cần có là tình yêu.

*policy points drawn from the websites of political parties





Deeper in debt

books-and-window resized
Freeimages.com/Johanna Llungblom

You’d think that after 42 years’ experience handling credit cards Australians would have wised up to over-using their high interest card/s and getting into debt.

Research by comparison website finder.com.au shows that Aussies are up to their eyebrows in credit card debt.

Finder’s analysis of Reserve Bank of Australia data shows that we have $18 billion more credit card debt than we did a decade ago and we have 16.3 million credit card accounts – equivalent to 90% of the adult population.

Bessie Hassan, finder.com.au’s Consumer Advocate, says Australians amassed $32 billion in credit card debt by December 31, 2015. Crikey, that makes my $188 balance payable by March 31 look kind of paltry.

Notwithstanding, one of my better later-life decisions was to keep my credit card with its modest limit, as it allows me to pay for concert tickets, annual subscriptions, overseas airfares and travel and thus defer payments to hopefully co-ordinate with monthly pay days.   But even at that rate, it is alarming how quickly one comes to owe $1,450 and there’s only $1,369 in the bank account.  And as we all know, if you don’t pay the balance off by the due date, you incur interest as high as 23%. I’m aware that folks who are living beyond their means commonly go card-shopping and pay off one balance by incurring a debt on the second card.

Enter Bankcard, 1974

The great expansion in borrowing goes back to 1974 with the introduction of Bankcard; long before many of you who are having panic attacks right now were even born. Bankcard was the first credit card, but within 18 months it was broadly accepted, with 1.054 million users and 49,000 merchants on board.

Of course my parents’ generation were aghast, they of the ‘never a borrower or a lender be’ class. They saved up for stuff, or put it on lay-by. What – you’ve never heard of lay-by? Let’s say you are in (leading department store), when a fabulous crystal chandelier catches your eye.

You go to the lay-by counter and enter into what the ACCC defines as an agreement to pay for the goods in at least two instalments. You do not receive the goods until the full price has been paid.

The beauty of lay-by is that you get a cooling off period, so if you get home and show the wife pictures of the fabulous chandelier on your IPhone and she spits the dummy, you can cancel the lay-by agreement and the business will refund your deposit and all other amounts (except for the termination fee).

The Australian Payments Clearing Association (APCA) has an intriguing timeline which shows the development of finance and credit in this country. Notable is the emergence of international credit cards in the 1980s (visa, MasterCard) which ushered in a new era of competition. Along with nifty initiatives like awarding frequent flyer points on credit card use, rival credit card providers enticed people away with tempting (introductory) low or no-interest periods. In those days hardly anyone charged annual fees, so some people used their cards to buy groceries.

Hassan says the data shows that 90% of people aged 18 and over have one credit card (on average), an increase of 79% from 2004. In warning that the market appears to be reaching saturation level, Hassan says that while a credit card is a convenient, short-term way to borrow money, you can quickly reach dangerous levels of debt.

Someone is spending my share

Total balances on credit cards hit $52 billion at December 31. The total balance per card is currently $3,192, $1,971 of which is accruing interest.”

There are a range of comparison websites like where you can find a snapshot of credit card provider terms. Consider this a moving target, but a quick perusal of Infochoice showed interest charges ranging from 10.99% to 23.50%. Most providers charge an annual fee ranging from $30 to $399. Virtually all offer an interest-free period of 55 days.

Taking the Extreme case, if your $20,000 limit card is ‘maxed out’ and you are paying 15% interest and an annual fee of $165 (due tomorrow), and you’ve just lost your job, it could be time to sit down with your credit card provider and come to an arrangement.

“Look, I can give you $10 a week, every week. Or I can declare myself bankrupt. Your choice.”

There’s a fair chance after a year or so Mr Extreme’s circumstances will have improved and he can afford to pay back the minimum on a debt which over a year has become much larger, but he’s not bankrupt.  He may even have sought advice from a personal finance counsellor.

Bessie Hassan lists a few things credit card users can do if they think their card usage is getting out of control:

  • Don’t get into the trap of using it as a cash advance when income runs low;
  • Don’t accept a higher credit limit just because a lender offers it to you;
  • Clean up your credit card accounts by paying more than the minimum monthly payment, reducing credit limits and practise responsible spending;
  • Transfer all your debt to a new provider (one offering 0% interest for a limited time) and only pay interest on new card purchases.

Changes to consumer credit laws in March 2014 means it does not take much to get a black mark on your credit rating. Before, it would take a string of missed payments before a default notice appeared on your credit report. Now, a payment missed by 14 days can trigger a default. As anyone who’s been oversea on holidays and thought the payment could wait now realises, it can’t wait.

According to the Australian Retail Credit Association, 59% of Australian consumers do not know credit reporting works and are not aware of these changes.

But what about the third-world?

Ah, but this what we middle-class Aussies call a “first-world problem”. Time for a seemingly unrelated segue. You’ll hear a lot this weekend about asylum seekers being detained offshore at the behest of the government we elected (unhappily, a position supported to by the Federal Opposition).

Asylum seeker and refugee advocacy groups will be holding rallies and marches on Palm Sunday, once again trying to make this a major election issue.

So even if your housekeeping has revealed it will take until Easter next year to pay off those three credit cards that seemed so alluring at the time, what’s one more book, bought new and donated to those poor buggers detained without charge on Manus Island, Nauru, Christmas Island or in mainland detention centres?

As Amnesty International found, there is an insatiable appetite for multi-lingual dictionaries in Australia’s detention centres. Donors have so far given Amnesty 4,200 dictionaries in Farsi, Tamil, Vietnamese and other languages. Each dictionary will be hand-delivered or individually mailed to someone who’s asked for one, along with a message from the donor.

However tempting it might be to buy the Arabic translation of Noam Chomsky’s World Orders – Old and New (yes, there is such a thing), a Hindi dictionary or a set of Beatrix Potter books for the little detainees would be a better choice. Get your card out and start looking at ways to help. #LetThemStay.

Darwin Asylum Seeker Support and Advocacy Network, Asylum Seeker Resource Centre; Amnesty International.