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Tag Archives: Security

Deconstructing a dog whistle

Tony Abbott’s government has taken some body-blows in recent weeks, and Abbott’s own leadership standing is suffering. Some say that this is due to a savage budget that seeks to address a non-existent budget emergency by penalising those who can least afford it and by punching the powerless, compounded by poor communications and head-scratching political decisions. If this were the case, one might be forgiven for thinking that the best way of recovering the party’s fortunes might be to revisit the thinking behind the budget, to seek to appropriately identify who the real lifters and leaners in the economy are, and to fix the way that the government goes about doing business.

Or you could go for the approach of sowing distrust and disunity, painting an amorphous group as the “Other” in order to convince Australians that you are “One of them” and being strong to protect them from the forces of darkness. This is a skill-set and a rulebook Tony Abbott inherited from his great hero John Howard and this weekend’s video message shows that he has enthusiastically embraced it.

If national security is so important that it has prompted an address to the nation, at the expense of attention to Joe Hockey’s “Never back to surplus” budget and Andrew Robb’s TPP negotiations and the likely forthcoming execution of the Bali Nine kingpins, then it would seem worthwhile to examine the detail of Mr Abbott’s speech.

When you look at what Mr Abbott had to say, it becomes clear that he is taking two specific incidents and generalising threats from them, generalising failures from them, and using them to beat up the necessity for changes. In two minutes and 23 seconds, he commiserates with the victims of violence, generalises the threat to all Australians, spruiks the actions of the government, reminds us of the threat and reassures us that he is keeping us safe.

An examination of the specific incidents to which Abbott refers, however, tells a more sobering story. There have been no significant failures of our immigration and border protection regulations, no breaches of our balanced and considered jurisprudence and bail system. There are no practical measures that could have prevented these specific events that prompt Abbott’s address. Once you understand that any measures the government might propose can have no possible effect on preventing these specific events, the low-brow dog whistle becomes crystal clear, and it becomes possible to see the real threat behind the words – the threat of further intrusive and unwarranted interference into people’s everyday lives.

A Message from the PM

Abbott begins by referring to the recent Lindt cafe attack by Man Haron Monis. It is perfectly appropriate to “acknowledge the atrocity”. It was one man with a shotgun and three people, including the attacker, died in the event. “Atrocity” is a strong word, but Abbott commences as he means to continue. In any case, the scene is set, the tone of the address is identified: this is a message about terrorism.

Abbott continues with a pledge to keep Australia as “safe and secure” as humanly possible. Federal and State governments are conducting a joint review into the siege, and the report will be released soon. The report will make recommendations and the government intends to take some actions. History has shown us that actions taken by a government are often only a subset, or sometimes a completely different set, to the recommendations of any given report, but we will reserve judgement. In effect, Abbott is attempting to take credit in advance for an announcement the government has yet to make. He is showing the government is strong, by pointing to the future when it intends to take strong action that it can’t tell us about yet.

We may get an inkling of the actions the government has in mind when Abbott addresses the Parliament on the topic of national security next Monday. But we may have a sneak preview as Abbott continues on.

“For too long we have given those who might be a threat to our country the benefit of the doubt. There’s been the benefit of the doubt at our borders, the benefit of the doubt for residency, the benefit of the doubt for citizenship and the benefit of the doubt at Centrelink. And in the courts, there has been bail, when clearly there should have been jail.”

When we unpack this statement, in the context of recent events and of the preceding text, Abbott is effectively telling us that we have not been strong enough in our immigration policies, and failures in our bail and justice systems. Abbott refers very specifically to the one example he has mentioned, Man Haron Monis, the attacker in the Lindt cafe event. Australians – particularly those in Sydney, Abbott’s home constituency – will be very aware
also of the arrest this week of two young men, home-grown potential jihadists. Despite not mentioning them specifically, the media has been quick to connect the dots between their arrest and this statement by Abbott.

The problem is that neither our immigration, residency, citizenship nor bail processes failed in any of these cases.

Man Haron Monis was on bail for a variety of criminal offenses at the time of his cafe attack. These cases were not religious in nature. He was accused of being accessory before and after the fact for the murder of his wife by his girlfriend. Separately, he was on bail on indecency charges. Neither case could have given indication that he was planning to turn into a shotgun-wielding maniac. [Read: How was Man Haron Monis not on a security watchlist?]

There were indications perhaps of mental instability, of paranoia, and definite isolation and marginalisation. Monis was known for holding “extremist” views. That’s easy to say in retrospect. His views on the West’s involvement in Middle-Eastern conflicts would not be out of place in a Greens party room meeting. He was, until very shortly before his act of terror, a well-dressed and urbane Australian.

Could the Lindt Cafe attack have been avoided if Man Haron Monis was denied bail? Certainly. On what basis could bail have been denied, though? This was not a wild-haired fanatic before the magistrate.

Bail is a State issue of law enforcement. As it happens, laws have already been tightened in NSW that would have prevented Monis’ bail. So what exactly does Abbott, in the Federal sphere, expect to do to make Australians still safer?

The recent arrests in Sydney were of two young men, Mohammad Kiad and Omar al-Kutobi. Allegedly they were arrested just hours before they intended to attack members of the public with knives. Could either of these alleged terrorists have been captured earlier with tighter border protection policies, or more intelligence resources? Were they abusing their Centrelink entitlements?

It would appear not. Kiad, now 25, came into Australia four years ago on a family visa to join his wife. al-Kutobi fled Iraq with his family ten years ago; he came to Australia in 2009. Shortly thereafter he received a protection visa and he became an Australian citizen in 2013. Neither man was a wild-haired fanatic, nor obviously a danger to the public.

The pair were not known to police. They were not known as religious extremists. Until recently, it doesn’t appear that they were. Instead, they were young Aussie men, fond of barbeques and American TV and luxury goods. Their radicalisation occurred over the last few weeks, perhaps triggered by the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo offices last month in Paris. Their rapid radicalisation was reported to Australian authorities by their own community about a week ago. Mere days later, police swooped.

How were tighter immigration rules four years ago going to prevent a planned terror attack that took months, at most, to be conceived and instigated, from men who by all reports only became extreme within the last six months, and on Australian soil?

The other problematic element of this densely offensive paragraph is the reference to Centrelink. In the context of this strident message, the inference is clear: that terrorists rely on Newstart. This is so ridiculous as to be laughable – yet it plays to the same crowd who lapped up the election rhetoric about boat people clogging up the motorways of Sydney.

The other possible reading is that people who rely on welfare are as bad as terrorists. I’m not certain which interpretation is the more offensive.

Abbott continues his address with the key message: all too often, “bad people play us for mugs. Well, that’s going to stop.”

Who are these bad people? That’s not been shown. Hopefully it’s not Man Haron Monis, because if we’re going to stop people like him from “taking us for mugs”, we presumably will no longer be providing welfare to those with mental issue. Hopefully it’s not Mohammad Kiad and Omar al-Kutobi, because in order to curtail the terrorist threat they pose, we would need to prevent muslims in general from entering the country.

Abbott makes a variety of references to the “Islamist death cult”. There’s a three-word slogan that’s earned him a couple of poll points before. It is also simultaneously emotive, highly offensive to large groups of undeserving people, and impossible to criticise without coming across as an apologist. Well, this author will criticise it. Islamic State might possibly be Islamist, but using the term paints all Muslims alike. IS is most certainly not a death cult. Yes, it uses unsupportable means and revels in bloodshed, but it does so not for the sake of killing people, but rather to attract those it considers devout. The killings are a means, not an end. And the idea of a world caliphate of muslims is dear to many. Nobody should seek to defend the actions or the Islamic State. However, belittling IS with a three-word slogan ignores the complexities and the real grievances and aspirations of millions of muslims everywhere.

Abbott goes on to talk about the much-discussed “new threats” of home-grown backyard terrorists, armed with “a knife, a flag, a camera phone, and a victim”. Terrorists are everywhere, around every corner, lurking under every bed.

By all means, do what you can to identify potential attackers before they take a life. But in the same way that it’s impossible to protect the public from an armed robber in a milk bar, it is impossible to protect the public from a quiet young man who just wants to be respected.

Abbott finishes his presentation by proudly boasting of working with other nations to degrade the Islamic State through military means; and improving the powers and resources of Australian intelligence agencies. Finally, he claims the need for stronger laws to “make it easier to keep you safe”. These include the data retention laws currently before parliament, but, worryingly, might also include other laws and regulations Abbott does not describe, but which will inevitably further encroach on our liberties and our privacy. Of course, it’s all for our own good. The government is being strong to keep Us safe from Them.

“As a country we won’t let evil people exploit our freedom.” As Kaye Lee has written today, it’s a pity that credo doesn’t stretch to include the current government.

Selling the Golden Geese

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Roll up, Roll up, Round two of the Great Howard Fire Sale is here!

We’re under New Management, so let’s have a look at what we have on the block today.

We’ve got Medibank, ACS, AGS (don’t worry about acronyms, we’ll get to them later), Australia Post, Australian Rail and state power companies.  Get your bargains here!

The Liberals and Nationals have wasted no time setting up shop again in the temple.  Apparently not satisfied with the billions of public assets sold under the Howard/Costello stewardship, the new government is looking at selling off anything that even appears to compete with private businesses, regardless of any contribution to the public good or the public purse.

Sales of public assets are often touted as solutions to a debt crisis.  The reality is they are a sugar hit for politicians to improve their numbers, and corporations to receive handouts from the public purse.

One thing always missing from the conversations about debt and privatisation is the public interest. For example, was it truly in the public interest to sell Telstra’s copper infrastructure, our major airports, or most of our gold reserves?

Public assets are historically undervalued, and when sold often undergo massive downsizing and service retractions.  In the brave new world of asset stripping and collateralized debt obligations the Australian public needs to take a closer look at what Public Corporations are, what services they provide, what they represent, and what impact their sale would have on the current shareholder… the Australian public.

ACS pty ltd
Formerly known as the Australian Submarine Corporation, this is the primary naval defence contractor for the nation, responsible for the ongoing maintenance of the Collins class submarine fleet, and is currently building our next generation Air Warfare Destroyers.

The company engages thousands of people and businesses, mainly in South & Western Australia, and took many years and billions of tax-payer investment to build it to its current capability.

A quick look at the annual report for 2013 shows that in addition to maintain and building our defence capabilities it made a reasonable return and now holds over $619 million in assets:

Return on equity         4.2%
Dividend                      $8.9 Million
Paid taxes worth         $3.2 Million

This company is a monopoly.  It is the only company in the nation capable of building military class naval vessels and the only one who can service our submarines.  This means any changes of ownership will have a direct impact on our national security.

No other company will ever be able to compete with ACS due to the massive infrastructure investment required.  How can a government put a sale price on that kind of leverage?

If the sale does go ahead, how convenient that ex-Indi rep Sophie Mirabella has been given a golden parachute to corporate boardship.   One wonders which of the large foreign defence contractors would end up owning our naval fleet capabilities, and what Mirabella’s position would be on national security versus company profits.

AGS
The Australian Government Solicitor provides legal advice to the government; it was established at Federation and set up explicitly to act in the national interest.

This is a legal practice wholly owned by the commonwealth, which has access to some of the deepest policy secrets of the government.

The AGS website proudly proclaims that it beats private firms due to its knowledge and experience of government work. The sale of the firm would be a wholesale delivery of a huge amount of expertise and knowledge into private hands.  How can there be a meaningful price tag attached to the information bank, integrity & goodwill belonging to this firm?

The high potential for conflict of interest or corruption gives pause enough.  And given that the beneficiaries would only be lawyers able to charge the tax-payer higher rates for their services; how would it be in the public interest to sell?

Australian Rail Track Corporation Ltd
Responsible for over 8 thousand kilometres of interstate rail, the ARTC was established as a single entity for business to contact to arrange freight by rail throughout Australia.  Such was the importance placed on the rail that carries our mining and farming products to port, that both state and federal governments agreed to establish the integrated body.

Privatisation of rail has failed in the UK, with service cuts, fare hikes, and under-investment in infrastructure.  A situation many in Australian urban centres would be familiar with.

Similar stories of sales or deregulation of freight & mass transit exist all over the world.  In the USA the iconic Greyhound bus service now completely gutted thanks to deregulation and forced to cut services to thousands of rural towns.  The cities fare no better, with large cuts to bus & rail that disproportionally impact on low-pay workers.

Land and agricultural resources are vital to the Australian economy, this puts rail infrastructure into the ‘national security’ category.  To sell the ARTC, most likely to a foreign multinational, is to put our future prosperity up for ransom.

Medibank Private
The sale of Medibank is apparently justified by the fact that it is competing with private businesses.  The same argument could be made that Police are competing with private security firms, so should we be selling the police as well?
Medibank covers 29% of the Australian market, or approximately 3.8 Million people.  There are few health insurers who would not want a piece of that pie.  The annual report is positively glowing:

Return on equity         15.4%
Dividend                      $450 Million
Paid taxes worth         $82 Million

As part of servicing a public need Medibank launched AHM, the only insurance that actually spells out (literally in black & white) what cover you need to avoid the Medicare levy, and to stop the Lifetime Health Cover age tax.

Medibank is not a drain on the public purse; it is a leader and award winner in promoting community health; and a leader in the insurance community for high standards.

Finally, it is paying millions of dollars every year in dividends into the public purse.  Given the constant cat-calls for government to be run like a business, it is surprising that there should be opposition to a government property that is making money… for the government.  The only argument for selling Medibank is ideological, as there is no benefit to the public interest.

Australia Post
On the one hand the Liberals and Nationals want the local postie to process your Centrelink forms, on the other they want to sell it.

Given that the coalition wants to shut down the Clean Energy Finance Corp, which is currently earning the tax-payer $200 million per year. It is perhaps unsurprising that they also want ape their UK Tory counterparts who forced a partial privatization of the Royal Mail in the UK in spite of increasing profits.

Some articles are already inserting misinformation about Australia Post having an “ailing bottom line”, the same tactic used by the UK Tories.  The reality is Aus Post paid a massive 18.5% return on equity last year, all “during a period when addressed letters are declining”.

Compare this to the struggles of U.S. Mail.  Some have been arguing that the problems at U.S. Mail are due to unions and no lay-off clauses.  The reality is that the organisation has been reliant on low-skill, low-pay workers to keep overheads down and failed to automate or innovate. In addition U.S. Mail has to contend with government laws that prevent managers making sensible business decisions to restructure or diversify their business base.

This is the success of the Australia Post Corporation; it continues to deliver it’s regulated community service obligations while turning a profit. It has shaken off the assumption that it was an out-of-date institution and built itself into a truly modern business that is making serious money for the tax-payer:

Return on equity         18.5%
Dividend                      $243.7 Million
Paid taxes worth         $447.3 Million

Australia Post is another huge monopoly, with massive infrastructure and service commitments. Regional Australia and many urban communities rely heavily on their post office for far more that buying stamp or sending parcels.

When you read current CEO Ahmed Fahour commenting that community service obligations are ‘stifling’ business, it is easy realise that after privatisation regional and ‘unprofitable’ services would be the first items to be stripped bare.

As illustrated above, ideologically driven arguments for privatisation do not balance when weighed against the Public Good.  Interest rates for government loans are at historical lows so debt hysteria is completely invalid.  And why sell money-making enterprises that will assist in paying back the debt?  Why sell the golden geese?

An interesting attribute that is common across all of these commonwealth companies is that they are flagships in their arenas.  This is because they serve a public need and are capable of having long-term goals beyond mere money making.  These public bodies create new markets and build new products & innovations that private enterprise does not have the courage or resources to accomplish.

The entire premise of establishing a public corporation is to allow essential services like remote mail services, or secure rail transport, to be funded by the profits from the corporation’s unregulated activities.  Australia Post is a classic example; in 2013 regulated services lost money, other services covered the loss and made a profit overall.  The original NBN Co was another; it planned to use profits from urban areas to subsidise connectivity in Regional Australia.

Far from being a two-step process toward privatisation, public corporations need to be maintained as fiscally responsible ways for government to provide for the needs of the nation and spurring innovation, while giving private businesses the opportunity to benefit from new markets and reliable delivery infrastructure.

The corporations and political enablers that prey on these public assets do not care about the base-line services that they provide, only in the short-term profits that they can cleave.

Before Australia sells off its hard-bought Tax-Payer assets, perhaps we should take a closer look and see why private corporations are so eager to get their hands on them.

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