Friday, February 8, 2008

People Smuggler? Or Refugee Rescuer?

The case of Ali Al Jenabi has finally come to an end. Having been convicted as a people smuggler in 2004, Mr. Al Jenabi served his time in prison, and was later moved to the Villawood detention centre. From there he applied for a protection visa, on the grounds that he himself is a refugee. Despite the fact that Australian law requires a timely decision on these matters it has taken 20 months for a ruling to be delivered. In that time there have been three different immigration ministers consider the matter.

The newly elected minister, Chris Evans, has decided to deny Mr. Al Jenabi a protection visa on the grounds of his character as a result of his people smuggling conviction. Senator Evans claims that people smuggling “is a heinous crime that puts lives at risk, undermines Australia’s border security and weakens our immigration system.” It’s true that those who seek to profit from people smuggling are often low life thugs and criminals profiting from the desperation of others. But here’s where this case gets complicated.

Ali Al Jenabi claims he began people smuggling out of the desperate need to help his own family to get out of Iraq. In doing so he also helped others to escape. Yes he did take money, but according to him, only to pay the unavoidable costs of transporting people out of danger. It seems that many of the people he helped see him as an “Oskar Schindler” style character who saved lives by manipulating a corrupt system in a dangerous part of the world.

Despite this, the minister feels that it is necessary to make the point that nobody who practices people smuggling should be rewarded for their crimes. Thus, Mr. Al Jenabi has been given instead a “removal-pending” visa. However, rather than being deported any time soon, he has now been released into the community indefinitely because Iraq is officially considered to be an unsafe destination for failed asylum seekers.

As paradoxical as all this seems to be, the irony is that it is entirely consistent with the crazy circumstances that led Ali Al Jenabi to help people to escape from a regime so evil that Australia participated in the invasion of that nation to depose the regime.

No wonder it took so long to make a decision.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

DOCs Does It Again…

It appears that in many respects the Department of Community Services is rather like the Department of Health. Both have suffered very public failures to provide adequate care to the people depending upon them. Both are populated by frontline professionals working in stressful conditions, the bulk of whom are doing the best they can despite the circumstances. Both are governed by a bureaucracy which has been criticized for being top heavy and misdirecting resources. Both have been plagued by procedural errors that should not happen. Both are now subject to Special Commissions of Inquiry.

It’s all too easy to sit on the sidelines and cast criticisms, but it’s important to recognize that we don’t always have all the facts available to us in the public arena. The latest debacle to engulf DOCS is the suggestion that four young children have been removed from the care of their Grandparents, who are registered as foster carers, because of a smack on the bottom. If it’s true it’s outrageous, especially after the deaths of Dean Shillingsworth and Shellay Ward, who were not removed from the dangerous situations that ultimately resulted in their deaths. But is it true?

All we know is what’s reported in the papers. Surely, in any rational assessment of the story, it would take far more than a smack on the bottom before children are removed from an otherwise satisfactory environment. It just doesn’t make any sense. That’s why I suspect there may be more to that story, and it is unwise to jump to conclusions.

However, I do believe that the Department is struggling with how it makes such decisions. Why else would so many children have died despite being known to the department? Clearly there is a problem with procedures when mistakes such as the misdirection of confidential information keep on occurring. Clearly, there is an urgent need to review the processes that continually fail to deliver on the expectations of the community.

In that respect, the Department has a great deal in common with almost every other aspect of the New South Wales government.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

The Solution That Never Was

The so called Pacific Solution is finally coming to an end. From the beginning, it sounded like the name of some fascist pogrom from a past era, and that in itself should have alerted all of us to the massive con that it was.

The only asylum-seeker crisis that ever existed was the manufactured crisis peddled by the previous government for its own political purposes. Having manufactured the crisis in the first place, it became politically useful to escalate it by creating the Pacific Solution. The sheer audacity of the deception involved now becomes apparent with the realization that the last remaining asylum-seekers on Nauru have now all been recognized as genuine refugees. Not only that, but they have been approved for resettlement…. Guess where! In Australia.

What was it the previous Prime Minister said about who will determine who comes into this country? Not only was the Pacific Solution an enormous con job, but it ultimately turned out to be an expensive exercise in complete futility. There was never any reason why asylum seekers could not be detained and assessed at our existing facilities here in Australia.

There remains of course the problem of Nauru, and the other Pacific Islands which were part of the program. They have benefited from the money spent by Australian taxpayers in their countries. Nauru in particular is a nation almost entirely bereft of economic opportunity. And now the money from the Australian detention centre will stop.

Australia has a regional responsibility to contribute towards the economic development of our Pacific neighbours, and that responsibility is now all the greater as the Pacific Solution comes to an end.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

What Goes Up…

Despite the increases in interest rates over the last five years, housing continues to spiral upwards in price. Inflation too has been increasing over the past two years and is now around 4%. For whatever reason, the conventional wisdom is that inflation must be cut off by increasing interest rates. Put simply, the increase in interest rates reduces the consumer’s spending power, thus reducing the upward pressure on prices and slowing inflation. Neat isn’t it.

It’s also wrong. The greatest price increases contributing to the growth in the consumer price index are the cost of housing and the cost of financial services. Both of these are themselves sensitive to interest rates so pushing up rates only makes the problem worse. Not only that, but if inflation is considered to be driven by consumer spending, then the increase in interest rates will unfortunately hurt most those who are least responsible for the problem. It’s not the battlers and the pensioners who are spending up big, but they are the ones who will feel the crunch most.

The real problem confronting us remains the staggering gap between house prices and everything else. At around eight times average income, average house prices are well beyond the reach of average people, and it’s only getting worse with price growth in double figures in many parts of Australia. If increasing interest rates was going to have an impact we would have seen the signs of it by now. Instead, interest rates and prices are both going up.

These circumstances are increasingly taking on the characteristics of a bubble, and unless steps are taken to deflate it gently, that bubble will ultimately burst. Interest rates and inflation are not the main issue here. It’s the inflated capital value of real estate that is the real problem.

Monday, February 4, 2008

The View From The Summit

The 2020 Summit to be held in Canberra in April is seen by some as nothing more than a talk fest which can be expected to produce only hot air. Perhaps it might ultimately prove to be a disappointment, but there is the opportunity for the event to be much more productive than some would suggest. Ideas will be put forward, discussed and debated, and proposals will be put on paper. Some of them will turn out to be good ideas, perhaps some of them won’t.

Prime Minister Rudd wants 1000 Australians from a variety of backgrounds to be gathered together to consider ten defined areas of strategic importance to the nation’s future. The ten points will be examined by ten groups of 100 each. The quality of the outcome will obviously be determined to some extent by the process of how the 1000 people are selected. Beyond that, ordinary Australians will also have the opportunity to make submissions via the Summit’s website.

While some will say that we have elected a government to govern for us and it should be up to them to make and implement strategic policies, we should not act as if we have elected a government to absolve us of the responsibility of thinking for ourselves, or of making a contribution. Equally, a good and democratic government will be open, accountable, and consultative. This Summit is an expression of those principles.

Such a gathering could conceivably arrive at conclusions and put forward proposals that might otherwise never exist. The critics who suggest it’s a waste of time are ignoring the fact that ideas can be hard to kill. Even if the government completely ignores the findings of the gathered men and women of the Summit, it would then have to be accountable as to why.

Either way, it’s better and more democratic than not having the Summit.