Friday, April 16, 2010

Border Insecurity

While there is no doubt that there has been an upswing in the number of asylum seekers arriving in Australian waters by boat, it is less clear just why this is happening. The opposition has maintained adamantly that it has been triggered by the changes to asylum seeker policy made by the Rudd government, including the abolition of Temporary Protection Visas, access to appeal processes, and relaxation of requirements to repay detention costs. The government insists that it is international conditions, the so called “push factors” that have propelled the surge, but the truth is that both push and pull factors are likely to be contributing. But while the opposition appears to be intent on promoting hysteria as much as possible so as to discredit the government, just what exactly is the problem?

The opposition seems to want us all to believe that asylum seekers represent some sort of threat to our border security, to our culture, and to our economy. The approach taken by the opposition promotes the idea that asylum seekers are placing an unacceptable strain on our population growth, our health system, our employment opportunities, our housing, and our natural resources such as water. It encourages Australians to think of asylum seekers as bad and undesirable people, without any consideration of who they are, where they are from, or what they may have been through. It depicts them as illegal immigrants, which they are not because they are legally entitled to seek asylum, while ignoring the 55000 people already hiding in our community with no valid visa or immigration status, who really are illegal.

The problem is not that people wish to exercise their right to ask for asylum. The problem is in how we respond to that wish. The problem is that the process is so difficult and dysfunctional that people become desperate enough to place their lives at risk in leaky boats, handing over whatever money they might have scraped together to shady people smugglers who operate outside of any law. People have a right to survive, and when the law does not provide them with the means or the opportunity to do so, it should not be surprising that they will turn to means outside the law. It’s not the asylum seekers’ fault that they are desperate. And even the people smugglers, who might well be parasites profiting from the misfortune of others, are only able to do so because the official channels provided by the United Nations are failing to adequately deal with the numbers of people who need help.

The problem is not that asylum seekers are arriving in Australian waters. Boats arrive, they are intercepted, and their occupants are detained. The system is working. Asylum seekers are not trying to sneak into the country, and they’re not slipping in through the back door. On the contrary, they are pounding on the front door, asking for help. There is no breach of border security, because the system is working. The only problem is that it is working too well. The detention centres are filling up, and resources are being diverted away from such things as tracking down the real illegal immigrants who live and work illegally in our country.

The opposition wants to reintroduce the old Temporary Protection Visas to stop the boats arriving. But there are two problems with that proposal. One is that it ignores the actual problem which is the increasing numbers of refugees in the region who genuinely need help. Secondly, it has been proven by past experience not to work. Because people with Temporary Protection Visas cannot access the family reunion program, whole families will cram themselves onto boats, instead of just one family member. That’s why more than 350 people died when the SIEV X sank almost ten years ago. By the opposition’s own logic, if Kevin Rudd’s policies are responsible for more boat people arriving now, then those Howard government policies could be blamed for creating the circumstances which led to those deaths. Effectively, bringing back TPVs would amount to trying to discourage people from risking their lives by making the risk even greater than it already is.

But that does nothing to actually address the injustice which has led them to face that risk in the first place.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Hey Hey It’s Almost Saturday

I didn’t get to watch the return of “Hey Hey It’s Saturday” last night on Channel 9. It was on in the lving room, but unfortunately I was busy attending to some other matters which could not wait. Apparently what I missed was an entertaining and successful return to the screen by a show which had been a long running favourite for generations of Australians. Most of the familiar crew made an appearance, the old familiar segments were back, and the reassuring voice of John Blackman once again strung everything together for a couple of hours of good old fashioned entertainment.

It does seem a little odd to be watching a show called “Hey Hey It’s Saturday” on Wednesday night, but apparently in these bottom line driven times there just isn’t a big enough audience available on a Saturday night to justify the expense. That’s a real pity, because if you are stuck at home on a Saturday night there is pretty much nothing to watch, with the sole exception of the delectable Julia Zamiro on SBS, and possibly “Iron Chef” if you have a taste for that kind of thing. But mostly, Saturday night is a television wasteland, and has been ever since “Hey Hey” disappeared al those years ago.

The great thing about Hey Hey, and the reason why so many have welcomed it back to the screen now, is that it offers a genuinely family oriented viewing experience. It used to be the perfect Saturday evening ritual for young families which the entire family could enjoy after a big day attending the kids sporting activities, doing the yard work, and maybe having an afternoon barbie. But even the young adults who were heading out to the pubs and the nightclubs would keep an eye on Daryl and the crew while they got ready for their night out. It was a ritual which did as much to unify the nation as football, meat pies, kangaroos and Holden cars. As such it represents a form of entertainment experience which has been sadly lacking for far too long.

There are plenty of other reasons to like “Hey Hey” too, such as the opportunity it provides for musicians and other entertainers to appear on television in front of a national audience. But, it still seems weird to have it on a Wednesday night, and especially to have it up against the premiere screening of the new World War Two drama “The Pacific” on Channel 7, anticipated to be one of the biggest events of the year. Although “The Pacific” started an hour later, it managed to attract an even bigger audience than “Hey Hey”. Personally, I would have programmed “Hey Hey” at 7.30 on Thursday night. That way Channel 9 could really give Matty Johns a run for his money with his new show over on Channel 7.

But I’m still struggling with this whole middle of the week thing. If only they would change the name to something that makes sense, like “Hey Hey It’s Almost Saturday”. Then I think I could relax and enjoy it, even if I would probably have to record the damn thing and watch it when I actually have some free time. That would be most likely on Saturday.

346 Days To Go

The fallout from Monday’s traffic disaster on the F3 continues with the head of the RTA, Michael Bushby, stood aside pending an independent investigation ordered by the Premier. Ever since the debacle, there have been calls for heads to roll, as if that might somehow magically fix the problem, and this appears to be the first. Of course, much of the heat has been directed at the Transport Minister David Campbell, lampooned by critics as “Mr. Slow”, who has been found repeatedly at the centre of disaster after disaster. The list is apparently endless, with such failures as the T-Card saga, the cancellation of the CBD Metro, and the apparent inability to improve ferry services all landing at his feet. But is Mr. Campbell really to blame, or is he just the meat in the sandwich?

It has been famously reported that former Transport Minister Carl Scully remarked that the job was so challenging that he had to drag himself by the neck to the office each day. And it is a monumental challenge. The problems besetting all aspects of transport in New South Wales, including both roads and public transport, have their roots in the decades of failure to adequately prepare for future growth and to build the necessary infrastructure accordingly. Despite awareness of the growth pressures, especially around the Newcastle – Sydney – Wollongong axis, Premier after Premier and Government after Government have failed to recognize the need for adequate investment in roads and other essential infrastructure. Of course, the current government has been in office for 15 years, so it’s getting pretty difficult for them to avoid responsibility by pointing the finger of blame at anybody else.

While calling for the resignation of the Minister might feel satisfying, the real question is whether it would make any difference. The decision making process which resulted in the abysmally poor response to Monday’s disaster is a process which is and should be within the RTA. It is supposed to be their responsibility to manage the road system to ensure that the safest possible environment is provided, and that when things do go wrong they are dealt with as effectively as possible. Critics have long suggested that the RTA has become a heavy handed bureaucracy which does more to punish drivers than to help them. Perhaps it is time for a shake up of the Authority and a review of how it operates.

But the buck has to stop somewhere, and responsibility for what has happened this week comes with the territory of being the Minister, and for that matter being the Premier. This government has had fifteen years to deliver a better outcome for not only the motorists of New South Wales, but also the users of public transport, the patients of the Public Hospital system, the residents who cannot find affordable housing, and all of the constituents who feel that our elected representatives have forgotten just who it is they are supposed to represent. For a large number of people, it would not be enough to get rid of the Transport Minister; they can’t wait to get rid of the whole government.

There are just 346 days to go, until they get the opportunity to make that happen.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Defending Our Rights By Destroying Them

The United States Ambassador to Australia Jeff Bleich was asked about the Australian Government plans for internet censorship when he appeared on ABC Television last night. While it is not normally the role of a foreign Ambassador to comment upon matters of domestic policy, the question was relevant because the internet is an essential platform for international trade and communication, and the United States State Department has previously expressed its concern over any attempt to impose censorship, including the plan by the Australian Communications Minister Stephen Conroy. The Ambassador responded to the question by saying that the internet must be free, meaning freely accessible, and that the United States has been able to capture and prosecute child pornographers without having to use internet filters. He said, “We have other means, and we are willing to share our efforts… it’s an ongoing conversation.”

Senator Conroy on the other hand continues to defend his plan, insisting that “Having no regulation to combat illegal activity actually weakens all that is good about the internet. This is a modest measure, which reflects long-held community standards about the type of content that is unacceptable in a civilised society." He argues that filtering the internet can successfully weed out child pornography and other undesirable material, despite a wide range of concerns expressed by critics, including the impact on the speed of internet services, the likelihood that not all undesirable material will be blocked, and the possibility that innocent material will be inadvertently caught in the censorship net.

When Senator Conroy suggests that the alternative to his plan is to have no regulation, he is either missing the point or deliberately misleading us. Nobody is suggesting that it should be legal to use the internet to disseminate child pornography, in fact quite the opposite. But to try to shut it off by filtering the internet is a bit like trying to stop people sending undesirable material through the Post Office by spending hundreds of millions of dollars on opening every letter to make sure it’s compliant. It’s not very practical, it’s not very efficient, and it would just motivate the perpetrators to use other means of distribution. All of these are legitimate concerns, but none of them identify the real problem with Senator Conroy’s proposal.

The truly insidious thing about the proposal by Senator Conroy is the legal structure that would be created which would give the Minister, or his minions, the unchallenged power to determine what is and is not acceptable, to create a secret blacklist without any accountability, without any requirement for those affected to be informed, and without any recourse or appeal for those affected to challenge decisions made in secret. It represents a lack of procedural fairness and natural justice that would not be tolerated in any other context. But because Senator Conroy throws around the words “child pornography” we are expected to take him at his word that he and all of his future successors can be trusted to do our thinking for us. Once the framework exists it is only a very short step to censoring artistic expression, political ideas, and free thought of any kind which might be determined to be “unacceptable” by the self appointed guardians of moral standards. Even if we trust this government not to abuse the power it seeks to give itself, can we trust future politicians to do the same?

This is another classic example of seeking to defend our rights by destroying them.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Making Heroes Out Of Hoodlums

The new series of Underbelly has proven to be an instant success with a national audience of more than 2.2 million people tuned in to watch the story of crime and police corruption in Kings Cross in the late eighties and nineties. Many of the events that will be depicted in the coming weeks are fresh in our memories because it’s not so long since they were front page news. No doubt, the notion that this is a true story only adds to the appeal, with many of us fascinated by stories of a world which is different from our mundane existence as wage slaves and mortgage holders.

Some have been critical of earlier installments of the Underbelly series, and other similar programs, because they glamourise criminal activity and the real life villains who in the end are usually dangerous and obnoxious people. Police in particular have condemned the way in which a criminal life can be made to seem alluring and attractive by the way it is portrayed on television. It has made heroes out of hoodlums and celebrities out of people who would literally knock off your grandmother if it suited them.

Of course, the story told by Underbelly is great drama, and Underbelly tells it well. But the fact is that Underbelly is not a documentary. It is a dramatic work which happens to be based on real events and real people, but which relies on artistic license to make a good story great. People who have an intimate knowledge of the facts behind the fiction, including investigative journalist Chris Masters and former detective Roger Rogerson, have offered a different account of the events depicted so far in the new series.

For example, Chris Masters reports that police doubt that John Ibrahim ever met George Freeman, and that Lennie McPherson had long since retired to the Gold Coast by the time Ibrahim arrived in the Cross. Roger Rogerson says that as far has he knows the Federal Police officer played by Sigrid Thornton never existed at all, and the drug deal sting which saw her ripped off by the State police was in his words “complete fabrication”. Of course, it was great to see Sigrid back on the screen and looking incredibly hot, and that really is the point. Underbelly is a piece of entertainment, not an essay in recent history.

In that respect, it’s hard to see how Underbelly does any more to glamourise crime than any other television show or movie. Whether it’s Miami Vice or CSI or even The Sopranos, the bad guys have always driven the fancy cars, had the fancy girlfriends, and flashed plenty of cash. But they have also always met with justice of one kind or another, whether real or poetic. The bad guys never win in the end, and even the ones who seem to get away with it usually pay the price one way or another. It’s the curse of Michael Corleone, condemned to destroy the people he loves.

These are morality tales, and far from making crime seem glamorous to sensible people, actually show the consequences of making such choices. Any one who is inspired to take up a life of crime and violence after watching them is more than likely already that way inclined, and not too bright either. So, if you enjoy watching Underbelly, or other crime shows, you can relax and indulge your guilty pleasure… it’s not going to turn you into a criminal just because you watch.