Friday, October 23, 2009

There Is No Queue (Part 2)

The current debate over asylum seekers is all about politics and not at all actually about the asylum seekers. The discussion has centred around accusations that the current upswing in numbers is the direct result of changes in Australian policy made by the Rudd government. It has focused on the supposed threat to Australia’s border security. The cost of increasing the number of beds on Christmas Island, and of paying for more facilities in Indonesia has been attacked, with the suggestion being made that the money could be better spent on needy Australians. The asylum seekers themselves have been described as illegal immigrants and queue jumpers, giving the impression that their claims to refugee status are not legitimate. But none of the debate or discussion has actually confronted the truth about displaced persons in the world, and what has propelled them to undertake such a hazardous journey.

Instead, the tone of the debate has been elevated to the level of hysteria, focusing on the threat to Australia. It is propelled by politics, not reality, as a few hundred asylum seekers on a few dozen decrepit boats does not amount to an invasion. But it is in the interests of the federal opposition to generate a climate of fear so that the Rudd government is blamed for a national security crisis which does not exist. Equally, it is in the interests of the government to appear to be doing something, and preferably something tough, about the perceived crisis. But the real crisis is the increase in asylum seekers who have been displaced by events beyond their control, and more importantly beyond ours. All the raging rhetoric spouting forth from Australian politicians makes no difference to what is going on in Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, and even in Indonesia. It only has an impact on public opinion here in Australia.

The claim by Liberal M.P. Wilson Tuckey that would be terrorists might conceal themselves among asylum seekers is nothing more than blatant, unashamed fearmongering. The purpose of such statements is to generate a political result by influencing public sentiment, not so much about the asylum seekers themselves, but about the government. The fact that public sentiment is also turned against the asylum seekers at the same time is just collateral damage. They are unfortunate pawns in the political game of which politicians can present the toughest image to appease a fearful public, when the public have been made to be fearful by those same politicians in the first place. And while Malcolm Turnbull will not allow himself to be caught using such divisive language, I suspect that it suits the Liberal Party to have someone like Wilson Tuckey spreading such fears among those sectors of the community where they will be well received. Far better for them to have him inside the tent, urinating out of the door, rather than standing outside it, peeing in.

I have already been criticized by quite a few people for expressing my views on a talk back radio show which might otherwise be expected to pander to this sort of hysterical nonsense. But others have equally thanked me, so it is clear that there are divided opinions out in the community about this matter. It is important to have the debate, because there are big issues at stake, not just about what is best for Australia, but also about fundamental human rights. It is even more important that the debate should actually focus on the real crisis, and not on the beat up histrionics about whether our borders are secure, and which political party has the toughest policies to prevent asylum seekers from actually seeking asylum.

The truth is that our border protection policies are working well. Boats are being intercepted, and people are being detained. We know from decades of experience that the vast majority of asylum seekers are ultimately found to be genuine, regardless of whether they are processed here, on Nauru, or in Indonesia. It’s not our fault that there are more people seeking assistance, and some would say it’s not our problem to deal with either. But that is what is supposed to mark Australia apart from those oppressive nations which persecute their own people and do not respect human rights as we do.

Australia is supposed to be better than that.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

There Is No Queue

Nobody likes a queue jumper. Everybody should politely wait their turn and remain courteous at all times. Pushing in is not to be tolerated. In fact, anyone who pushes their way to the front can expect to be pushed back again. In the same way, nobody should take a trolley full of goods through the 12 items or less lane because it is rude and inconsiderate. In fact it is downright arrogant. How can anyone act as if their needs are more important than everyone else’s, and expect to get away with it? Such attitudes can lead to ugly scenes at the supermarket, and most of us do the right thing because it is only fair.

Unfortunately, many of us also take this same supermarket mentality and apply it to the vastly more complex situation of asylum seekers. Who are these people, and how dare they try to jump the queue to get into our country? Why don’t they wait patiently somewhere else while their claim is processed? How dare they assume that they have the right to turn up uninvited and expect to be welcomed? If only they could follow the rules, fill out the paper work, and most importantly “wait their turn” everything would turn out just fine. The problem is that it just isn’t true.

There is no waiting list. There is no orderly process. There is no queue. There is no safe and amenable sanctuary where people can “wait their turn”. Refugees who have been displaced by civil war have in many cases already had their homes destroyed, their friends and family members killed, their possessions taken away. They may have been able to salvage some of their life savings to use in their attempt to escape devastation, and make their way to somewhere safe. They may even still have some portable items like personal jewellery, but they don’t have a safe haven. Many of the people in transit through places such as Malaysia or Indonesia are actually there without legal status, and as those countries are not signatories to the United Nations convention on refugees they cannot apply for asylum there. They have literally nowhere to go.

Australia, on the other hand, is a signatory to the convention, and has always had a proud history of accepting refugees from around the world. The convention itself was born out of the horrors of World War Two, specifically in response to the Holocaust, in an attempt to ensure that no such tragedy could occur again. Millions of innocent people lost their lives because the rest of the world ignored the persecution of the Jewish people, and there was no where for them to go. Those who did provide assistance to the Jews were later proclaimed as heroes, even though what they did was against the laws imposed by Nazi Germany and by definition illegal.

Our nation has been built by people from every part of the world, from every ethnic, cultural and religious background. We are a nation of immigrants, and we have been on the whole enormously successful and prosperous as such. Our democratic beliefs have previously led us to welcome refugees fleeing from such places as Viet Nam, and in those days boat people were considered to be heroes for defying the evil communists. But now, something seems to have changed and many of us have fallen for this crazy idea that desperate refugees are somehow a threat to our national security or our national identity.

Australia is also supposed to be a predominantly Christian country. Although we have separated church from state, and although we welcome all religions, much of our way of life and our tradition is based upon Christian ideals and philosophies. But strangely, many of us seem to be having difficulty practicing Christian charity. Instead of being good Samaritans helping the injured stranger, we seem to be telling him to go back to where he came from and to wait his turn. Some of us seem to have forgotten that “whatsoever you do for the least of my brothers, you do also for me.”

The truth is that in the last 12 months about 1700 asylum seekers have made it to Australia, while at the same time about 50000 people will have deliberately overstayed their visas, making themselves the genuine illegal immigrants. The truth is that asylum seekers are not simply an Australian problem, they are a world wide problem. The truth is that while people smugglers are profiteering form the misery of others, it is wrong to blame the victims. There’s a crisis alright, but it’s not a border security crisis for Australia, it’s a humanitarian crisis for the people who have nowhere to turn.

Calling them queue jumpers and telling them to wait their turn does nothing to address the problem.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Tax Reform Will Have Benefits, But Big Brother Will Still Be Watching

Once again, the proposal to abolish income tax returns for ordinary workers has sprung back to prominence, only this time it might actually happen. It’s an idea which has been put forward many times before, and it involves replacing the current complex 200 page tax pack questionnaire with a single page document. This single page would list your income, the tax you have paid, and a standard deduction figure for work related expenses, and it would offer you the opportunity to simply tick the box indicating that you accept the assessment and your refund would be in you account within 14 days. If you don’t accept the assessment, you still have the option of doing it the old fashioned way and filling out all that paperwork.

For most people, the simplified option is not only very appealing because it relieves them of the need to wade through mountains of paperwork, but it also makes a lot of sense. The government already knows how much salary you were paid along with how much tax has been collected from your pay packet, because your employer has provided that information. The government already knows how much you have received from Centrelink because they are the ones who paid you. They already know how much interest you earn on your deposits and how much you are paid in dividends from your share holdings. Why on earth should we have to fill out page after page of forms telling them all the things they already know?

Not only does this make life easier for the tax payer, it also reduces the workload for the Tax Office and makes the whole process immensely more efficient. Time spent processing claims will be dramatically reduced, and everybody will be much better off. Of course, if your affairs are more complex because you have investments or you are self employed, this method would not be appropriate, but for the majority of taxpayers it will be a vast improvement. In fact, the only thing better would be not having to pay tax at all.

Now there’s a thought. If the idea is to make the system more efficient why not allow low income earners to be removed from the income tax system altogether. Already the combination of rebates and allowances, along with welfare payments, provides a result where low income earners pay no tax on balance, but still they have to go through the process of pay-as-you-go, before claiming a refund. Surely it would be more efficient if they weren’t paying the tax at all in the first place. That would further reduce the compliance burden for both the individual and the Tax Office, and allow people to have their money in their hands as they earned it, not at the end of the tax year as a refund.

But wait a minute. That’s never going to happen, because if people were removed from the tax system altogether, how would the government keep track of us all? You can bet Big brother wouldn’t like that at all.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

National Party ETS Gamble

It seems to be unclear just exactly what is the coalition position on the proposed emissions trading scheme, or precisely what amendments it is proposing. Despite expectations that Malcolm Turnbull would seek approval from the joint party room for a set of specific amendments, there were no such proposals actually put into writing. Instead, the joint party room agreed to a set of principles on which Mr. Turnbull and his acting ETS spokesman Ian McFarlane would be permitted to negotiate. Mr. McFarlane is now in the process of discussing these principles with the Climate Change Minister Penny Wong. Presumably these discussions will lead to a point where the opposition feels it can actually put its proposals on paper and produce a draft of the amendments it intends to present in Parliament.

In effect, the coalition still has not committed to any position on the emissions trading scheme, other than to say that it opposes the scheme in its current form. Just what it proposes instead remains a set of vague ideas which have yet to be crystalised into a specific policy. In part, this is because the government has set the agenda, successfully calling a tune to which the opposition is struggling to dance. But it is also in part because the opposition parties remain deeply divided over the issue. A number of well publicized dissenters are to be found on the Liberal Party back bench, and pretty much the entire National Party doesn’t want to have a bar of it. No wonder there are no coherent amendments actually committed to paper.

Further complicating matters is the call by the National Farmers Federation for the National Party to support whatever amendments are finally drafted by the coalition. The Federation believes that if the government accepts the coalition proposals then the National Party should support them. It seems that the Federation accepts that an emissions trading scheme will be a fact of life whether anyone likes it or not, and is pragmatic enough to see the need for farmers to have a seat at the table rather than risk being shut out in the cold. Or perhaps in the context of global warming, that should be heat. Either way, there’s a lot at stake for farmers, and like any other business affected by the emissions trading scheme they deserve to have their interests represented in the process of reaching an outcome, and to have some certainty about their future.

There have been mixed messages from the National Party, with many of its members steadfastly opposed to any kind of emission trading scheme at all, and certainly not in advance of the international meeting in Copenhagen in December, while the Party Leadership is hedging its bets by supporting the negotiation process in which Malcolm Turnbull is engaged. The truth is they have no choice. Simply opposing the legislation would virtually guarantee that it passes after a double dissolution election which would at the same time lock the coalition out of government for another three years. That’s why, regardless of how much they grit their teeth, the Nationals are likely to support the amendments, when they are finally drafted and if they are accepted by the government.

That all hinges on developing amendments which are not only acceptable to their own members, but also to the government. If they don’t, they will have simply dealt themselves out of the game.

Resuscitating Medicare

The news that the Australian Medical Association will recommend that general practitioners increase their fee for a standard consultation above the rate of increase in the Medicare rebate is no surprise. Ever since the introduction of Medicare the indexation of the official scheduled fee, and with it the rebate, has failed to keep pace with the increase in both the actual cost of medical services and the cost of living in general. Every year, the fee recommended by the AMA has increased by a little bit more, so that now patients who are not bulk billed are paying almost half of the fee charged by their doctor, and from November 1, the gap will grow just a little bit more.

Of course, not all doctors charge the recommended fee set by the AMA. Many charge less, and most still make bulk billed services available to many of their patients. But the fact remains that the rebate paid by Medicare is gradually being whittled away in real terms to the point where it will ultimately become meaningless unless something is done to remedy the situation. An while 78% of GPs are still prepared to bulk bill, there is a growing difficulty for patients in finding specialists, pathologists, radiologists and anaesthetists who will do the same. In fact 74% of specialists do not.

While there has been a great deal of discussion about the challenges confronting our public hospitals, the truth is that our whole health system is in need of reform to deliver better access to first class care. Part of that picture is the Medicare system, and the delivery of GP and specialist services in the community. The National Health and Hospitals Reform Commission examined the possibility of a network of regional health authorities to better distribute health funding around the nation, but rejected it as to complex and inefficient. The Commission has instead recommended further investigation of a proposal to set up something called Medicare Select.

The idea for Medicare Select is for Medicare to offer a premium level of service which would essentially compete with private health insurance funds. It would mean that those who are able to pay would be able to choose a blue ribbon version of Medicare, or a private health fund, introducing a competitive pressure which would supposedly help to keep health fund premium prices affordable. Unfortunately, such a plan would do nothing to alleviate the problems besetting what would then become Medicare Basic. In fact, it could very well make them worse.

In a system where well off patients are encouraged to pay an extra fee for a premium service, the obvious risk is that the basic service will become even more basic over time, until it is little more than the sort of low level health program seen in a place like the United States. In other words, not much help at all, and effectively the end of Medicare as we know it, completely abandoning the principles on which it was originally based. Ironically, we already had a Government owned private health insurer once… it was called Medibank Private. It was the leftover of the original public health insurance scheme introduced by the Whitlam government, and was privatized only a short time ago. It seems quite bizarre to create a new publicly owned insurer after we have just sold the old one.

Medicare is a system which works well, and has done since it was introduced. The only thing hampering it is the reluctance of the government to properly fund it. Time and time again research has shown that most people would be happy to pay a higher Medicare Levy on their tax if it means that we get the health system we were promised. There is even a sound argument for increasing the surcharge to encourage more people to choose private insurance. But the idea of creating a premium Medicare service is contrary to principles of Medicare itself, and would most likely be the beginning of the end of one of the best health care systems in the world.