Friday, March 12, 2010

Welcome to the Soviet Socialist Republic of New South Wales.

There’s no doubt that the severe housing shortage in Sydney needs to be addressed. The city is growing, with the population expected to reach 6 million before mid century, and all those people have to live somewhere. But the plan to create a Metropolitan Development Authority which would have the power to compulsorily resume private property only to be handed over to developers cannot be justified as long as alternative measures have not been fully explored. Just because the government has been complacent about opening up green field development sites, lazy in planning infrastructure and downright incompetent with public transport is no excuse to rob people of their property rights.

Before anyone has their home stolen from them in the name of urban renewal, the government must address those shortcomings by removing the red tape tangle which strangles development of new land releases. It needs to deliver infrastructure and transport services to where they are needed, in places where they were promised years ago, and where residents are still waiting. More needs to be done to channel population growth away from Sydney and into new regional growth centres, and not just big cities such as Newcastle, but towns further afield as well. If regional development is part of the solution to the challenge confronting Sydney, then everyone will benefit.

If the bulk of the growth in population is accommodated in Sydney, there is a very real risk that the demographic imbalance will leave regional centres even more drained of resources. As more and more people crowd into Sydney, they will need more and more of the government’s resources in the way of hospitals, schools, transport, police, and so on, leaving the regional areas more starved for services than ever. On the other hand, if migrants and even people born in the city could be encouraged to settle elsewhere the benefits would be enormous. The regional areas would enjoy the associated economic growth while the pressures in Sydney would be alleviated at least to some degree.

The insidious thing however, and the greatest danger, is the idea that Sydney’s growth problems can be solved by removing people’s rights. Property rights form the entire basis for a free enterprise society, and freehold title is supposed to mean something. It has always been the case that the government can resume land for a public purpose, but that does not include handing it over to a private developer who will make massive profits from it. That amounts to state sanctioned piracy, and no matter how many laws might be passed to make it legal it will remain unfair and unjust.

There may well be a public benefit in urban renewal, providing more housing for the community, but once we allow people’s rights to be eroded to achieve that aim, the question arises as to just where it will stop. Today it begins with urban property around transport hubs, tomorrow it could be your property. It is inconsistent to claim to serve the community by disadvantaging individual members of the community who have done nothing wrong. The purpose of the law is supposed to be to protect people’s rights, not to take them away.

Welcome to the Soviet Socialist Republic of New South Wales.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

How To Make A Billion Dollars (Without Really Trying)

While it might not be quite as earth shattering as the Lara Bingle and Michael Clark kerfuffle, you might be stunned to learn that William Gates III is no longer the world’s richest man. Neither is the Oracle of Omaha Warren Buffett. According to Forbes Magazine, the richest man in the world is a fellow called Carlos Slim from Mexico with a fortune calculated at US$53.3 billion. Bill Gates takes second place with US$53 billion, and Warren Buffett has been relegated to third place with a mere US$47 billion. You almost feel sorry for him.

Everybody knows that Bill Gates made his money in software, while Warren Buffett is the world’s best known share market investor. Carlos Slim is in telecommunications, and the rest of the top ten are in oil, steel, fashion and retail. The youngest billionaire in the world is 25 year old Mark Zuckerberg who is responsible for creating the Facebook social networking website, which is an extreme example of just how far a lonely geek will go to try to get some friends. Sadly, while his website is extraordinarily popular, it can also be supremely frustrating so now he has probably got even less friends as a result.

The good news is that the net wealth of the world’s billionaires has increased by around 50% over the past year. That’s got to be good news, because if they’re doing well that means the rest of us must also be doing well. After all we’re getting paid for working in their companies, cleaning their houses and walking their dogs. It’s the well known trickle down effect. If you don’t actually feel any better off, obviously you’re just not looking at things the right way. While it might seem obscene that so much should be in the hands of so few, they have to spend it somewhere and that’s where the rest of us should be lining up to cash in.

The number of billionaires has also increased to 1011, up from 793 last year, but still not as many as before the Global Financial Crisis. Of course, that explains why so many seem to have done so well in the last 12 months. The GFC was a big setback for everybody and billionaires were no exception. In fact they lost more because they had more, which is kind of reassuring for the rest of us because quite frankly I couldn’t afford to lose the US$68 billion that the top three billionaires did during the crisis. Now that the recovery appears to be underway it’s no surprise that the big boys are once again packing their piggy banks.

If you’re wondering about how well Australian billionaires have been doing there are eleven of them on the list, or roughly one percent of the total. The highest placed Australian is Andrew Forrest who runs Fortescue Metals with US$4.1 billion and he is ranked at number 208 in the world. I hate to say it but it looks like Australia is underperforming and really we should all try to do better. We might be a small nation but we are supposed to represent 1.5% of the world economy so by rights there should be at least another three or four billionaires in Australia. If we had a national sporting team underperforming in this way there would be a national outrage.

But how to do better? Interestingly, it seems that you don’t have to be a Capitalist any more. For the first time, the country with the most billionaires outside of the United States is now China. Who would have thought that this could happen in a Communist country? I mean, didn’t they have a law against it or something? Either Communism has changed the rules, or there are an awful lot of Chinese people bucking the system. Oh well, if you can’t beat them, join them. I think maybe I’ll sell my BHP shares and move to China to start up a social networking website.

At least there are plenty of customers over there.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

It Should Go Without Saying

The New South Wales Government has moved to alter the Community Relations and Principles of Multiculturalism Act by requiring people from all ethnic backgrounds to “demonstrate a unified commitment to Australia.” While the original purpose of the Act was to require all Australians to “respect and make provision for the culture, language and religion of others”, the idea that those “others” should offer the same respect to the rest of us simply wasn’t mentioned. Of course, it should go without saying that everyone is expected to observe Australia’s laws, and to respect Australian values. Unfortunately it seems that so often what “goes without saying” should actually be said, just so that everyone is clear.

Chairman of the Community Relations Commission Stepan Kerkyasharian is quoted by the Daily Telegraph as saying that the laws of Australia would now be recognized above people’s cultural backgrounds. That’s the sort of thing that should automatically be the case. It should be self evident that the law applies to everyone. But the change to the Act also refers to “shared values”, something that can be a little less clear cut. Just what exactly are “Australian values”? It’s a question that has been asked before, but is yet to be clearly defined.

When John Howard introduced the citizenship test there was a lot of discussion about this very question. At the time it seemed to amount to knowing who Don Bradman was and being able to recite the National Anthem, something many natural born Australians would have trouble doing. There is always plenty of talk about concepts such as “a fair go” and “looking after your mates”, but really aren’t they just Australian ways of talking about justice and equity? Australia has no mortgage on those qualities. Every decent human being anywhere in the world would aspire to those ideals.

The problem with writing ideals into law is that it becomes necessary to describe and define things which can be abstract concepts. For example, poorly considered anti discrimination laws might be misused to create further discrimination, in the form of what is sometimes called “reverse discrimination”. It shouldn’t be necessary to write a law requiring people to respect the law, but it seems that if something “goes without saying” then we leave ourselves vulnerable to those who would take advantage of our better natures.

Far better to “put it in writing”, so that everyone knows where they stand.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

A Very Naughty Boy

Is Tony Abbott the Messiah, or is he just a very naughty boy? Well, perhaps not the Messiah, but at least a prophet, leading his Liberal Party colleagues out of the political wilderness. Since taking over the leadership of his party late last year, Tony Abbott has miraculously resurrected the fortunes of the opposition, inspiring renewed fervor among his devoted followers. It’s little short of a miracle! Now, to further cement Tony Abbott’s status as a political prophet, it appears as if he has had a biblical experience akin to Saint Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus.

Back when he was a Minister in the Howard Government, Tony Abbott dismissed the idea of paid parental leave with the expression “Over this government’s dead body!” or words to that effect. These were indeed prophetic words, because the corpse of the Howard Government has long since been laid to rest, and lo and behold today we have Tony Abbott not only embracing the idea of paid parental leave, but promising to outdo the plan put forward by the government.

Instead of 18 weeks, Tony Abbott is promising working families a full six months of paid leave to welcome a new baby. Instead of a payment equivalent to the minimum wage at $544 a week, Tony Abbott is promising to pay the individual’s usual wage, up to a maximum of $150 000 per annum. That’s more than $2800 a week. It is obviously a much more generous scheme than the one currently planned by the government. There’s only one problem. Instead of expecting taxpayers to pick up the tab, Tony Abbott plans to impose a levy on big business.

Mr. Abbott proposes to charge Australia’s top companies a levy of 1.7% on taxable income over $5 million. He insists that big business can afford it, and that they should pay up in the interest of being good corporate citizens. Big business has other ideas. While many in big business support a paid parental leave plan, and many already have their own schemes anyway, they have objected strongly to what they have ironically described as “a great big new tax”. Now, where have we heard that phrase before?

Perhaps Mr. Abbott isn’t so much a political prophet after all. Perhaps he is attempting to play Robin Hood, taking from the rich to pay for his social policy. But that’s not right either with the greatest benefits to go to those most well off anyway. After first opposing a paid parental leave scheme and now adopting one, and after promising no new taxes and now proposing a levy on business, perhaps he is just a very naughty boy who is prepared to say absolutely anything just to get some attention. Perhaps he is actually the boy who cried wolf.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Call For Recognitoin Of Sharia Law Is Divisive And Dangerous

The open day at Lakemba Mosque over the weekend was supposed to be an opportunity for people to see for themselves that ordinary Muslims are just like other ordinary everyday Australians and share a desire to live together in peace and tolerance, even though they have a different set of religious beliefs and customs. It was a good idea, and there should be more opportunities for people to interact with each other and develop an understanding of each other. But it seems that not everyone left with a good impression.

I did not attend, so I have no first hand knowledge of the event, but the Sydney Morning Herald has reported that non-Muslim members of the crowd were shocked to hear a prominent Muslim leader speaking in favour of aspects of Sharia Law being legally recognized in Australia. Dr. Zachariah Matthews is quoted by the Herald as saying: “Sharia Law could function as a parallel system in the same way that some traditional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander law was recognized in the Northern Territory.” He said, “I don’t think we are so unsophisticated that we cannot consider a multilayered legal system as long as it doesn’t conflict with the existing civil system.”

To be fair to Dr. Matthews he was not advocating the introduction of the sort of Sharia penalties as death by stoning or the cutting off of hands for stealing. He was apparently talking about elements of family law and inheritance law, and mentioned child custody issues as an example. Unfortunately it was enough for some people to hear the words “Sharia Law” for them to be alarmed about just what Dr. Matthews might be suggesting. Despite the apparent misunderstanding, those who were shocked are right to be concerned, and Dr. Matthews is wrong to propose a parallel legal system.

Leaving aside issues of religious tolerance and prejudice, it is not only unnecessary to create a so-called multilayered legal system, it would be socially damaging. Although Dr. Matthews used the qualification of avoiding conflict with civil law, the perceived need for special recognition of Sharia Law, or any other code for that matter, can only arise if there is a conflict. Muslims are free to live by their own moral and religious code and they don’t need special recognition in Australian Law to do that. The only thing that Australian Law insists upon is that they don’t interfere with the rights and liberties of others, including members of their own faith. Only if Sharia Law somehow is at odds with civil law would there be a need for special recognition.

The example of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander law actually bears this out. The attempt in the Northern Territory to achieve racial harmony by recognizing tribal law meant allowing tribal elders to carry out punishments which in the normal course of events would be considered illegal. It was an attempt to reconcile mutually exclusive concepts from across a vast cultural divide, and was only attempted because of that inherent conflict. It has had some success, but it has also resulted in perceptions of double standards, fears of injustice, and divisions in the community.

It seems strange that an exercise which was supposed to promote harmonious relations between Muslim and Non-Muslim communities in Australia could be the platform for such a suggestion. It is bad enough that Dr. Matthews’ remarks have been misinterpreted and unfortunately contributed to increasing distrust of the Muslim community. But those remarks are also a matter of concern when you do understand what he was proposing, because it is a proposal which can only promote division in the community, not overcome it.