Just a quick post to let everyone know that this Blog will be on a break from now, over the silly season and should return early in the New Year. This isn’t so much because of Christmas and the New Year directly, but because my work schedule is so great and I won’t have the time to put in on the Blog during this period. I would have liked to keep up the posts, but it has become clear I just can’t keep it up at the moment – it is far too busy at work and with increasing staff shortages over the next couple of weeks, it will not get any easier.
Let me also take the opportunity to wish you all a happy and safe Christmas, and New Year period. Enjoy this time with family and friends.
Australia is part of the global explosion in space industries – including the design and engineering of satellites smaller than a loaf of bread.
But we’re at a point now where we need to take the next step.
The growing number of small satellites orbiting Earth presents some unique challenges, such as interference with communication networks, the buildup of space junk, and the legal questions that arise if something goes wrong.
Australia’s new Space Agency can play a vital role in coordinating our government policy around these issues.
Since Sputnik 1 in 1957, there have been 8,303 registered space objects. Only 20 of those, so far, have been registered to Australia, but five satellites have been launched for Australia in just the past four weeks (although not all of them have been registered yet).
Fleet Space in Adelaide had two satellites launched from New Zealand, one from India and one from the United States. The University of New South Wales in Canberra had the M1 satellite launched on the same rocket as the Fleet Space satellite from the US.
Globally, there are almost 1,900 active satellites in orbit. That number is set to increase rapidly in the near future – regulators in the US alone have recently approved more than 12,000 new satellites to be launched into space over the next decade.
In Australia, Fleet Space plans to launch 100 satellites over the next decade.
The volume is growing, but the satellites are shrinking. We’ve moved from satellites the size of buses, to those similar in size to a washing machine, to cubesats (10x10x10cm), and even smaller still.
Australia has committed itself to secure a large proportion of a global space market worth more than A$400 billion, tripling the Australian space industry from A$4 billion to A$12 billion and growing many thousands of jobs in the many new space start-ups in Australia.
That’s great news for the Australian economy, and the new Australian Space Agency has the mandate to make that happen.
Here’s where we need new policy around satellites to meet the challenges involved.
1. Congestion in signalling networks
Communication with your satellite is essential, even if communication is not its main purpose – to get data from remote sensing satellites, navigational satellites, experimental satellites, or just to track it, control it and monitor its status. But the use of radio frequency by small satellites has been hotly contested.
Big satellite manufacturers and operators, and others, oppose the allocation of frequency to small satellites through the international regulator – the International Telecommunications Union and its domestic equivalent – the Australian Communication and Media Authority (ACMA).
Notwithstanding that big satellite manufacturers and operators have a commercial incentive to oppose the disruptive upstarts, they have a point.
Small satellites don’t use less bandwidth in proportion to their small size (although they may transmit with less power). So, by their sheer number, they represent a significant risk of congestion and interference in the electromagnetic spectrum – leading to mobile phones not working properly, WiFi networks being degraded, and maybe even failure of your Netflix account.
The ACMA is seeking solutions to those potential problems, but if the solutions involve imposing significant technical and financial burdens on new space start-ups, these companies may go offshore to find better solutions – a loss for Australia.
2. The problem of space junk
Small satellites add to the space debris problem in outer space – because a significant proportion of them fail and not all of them follow international best practice (such as it is) on the operation of small satellites.
For example, US company Swarm Technologies went ahead with the launch of several very small satellites known as “Space Bees” via a launch on an Indian rocket even though the US Federal Communications Commission had previously declined to grant them a licence, on the basis that they were too small to be tracked, thereby making collision avoidance impossible.
SpaceFlight, a company that finds and facilitates launch opportunities for satellite operators, facilitated this opportunity for Swarm Technologies, and it was SpaceFlight that facilitated launch opportunities for the five Australian satellites launched in the last four weeks.
To be fair, Swarm Technologies and SpaceFlight have taken good steps to earn back the confidence of regulators in the US and globally, but it does demonstrate the need for clear and enforced best practice standards.
Unfortunately, there is a lack of consensus internationally on what those standards should be.
Again, there is a difficult balancing act – if the standards are too lax, there is a greater possibility of something going wrong and we lose reputation, influence, bargaining power and the opportunity to optimise international conditions for Australian commercial and other national interests.
If they are too strict, new space start-ups may find them unpalatable, and move their operations offshore – and the prospect of new jobs and economic growth in the industry dissipates.
3. Mistakes can happen
What happens if something does go wrong? Who bears the liability?
Under international law, in the first instance, liability rests with any state that launches, procures the launch or whose facility or territory is used for launch. Ultimately, that means the taxpayer.
A small satellite could conceivably be responsible for a failure at launch, or a collision in orbit, where there is infrastructure worth many hundreds of billions of dollars (not least, the International Space Station). Thankfully, the probability of any such failure or collision is generally extremely small.
But who accepts that risk of liability on behalf of the Australian taxpayer? For non-governmental operators, it is the Australian Space Agency.
There is the possibility of different standards within government and relative to the private sector. Australia’s Space Agency does not currently have a strong mandate to coordinate across all space activities in which our nation participates.
In the case of the Buccaneer cubesat and the M1 cubesat, the University of New South Wales in Canberra – which built and arranged the launch of the satellites – is subject to control by the Space Agency under legislation.
In other cases, the Space Agency will have to engage and influence others through excellent communication and soft influence. So far, the staff and leadership of the agency have managed that with great skill.
An agreement between Darwin’s city council and an overseas municipal counterpart normally wouldn’t attract much attention. Local government officials love signing such deals. Darwin already has no less than six “sister city” arrangements, including with the Chinese city of Haikou.
But attention has been drawn to Darwin’s newly minted “friendship” deal with Yuexiu District, in Guangzhou, due to Chinese media describing it as part of President Xi Jinping’s signature Belt and Road Initiative.
This suggests Chinese authorities regard Darwin as having strategic significance.
It invites reflection on the wisdom, three years ago, of the Northern Territory government deciding to lease the Port of Darwin (now known as Darwin Port) to a Chinese company for 99 years – and of the federal government going along with it.
At the time the new owner, billionaire Ye Cheng, claimed the Darwin port deal was “our involvement in One Belt, One Road”. This was discounted by some commentators as hyperbole, an attempt to curry favour with the Chinese government.
But now, by design or not, the Darwin port deal increasingly looks like a blueprint for how Chinese interests can take control of foreign ports – as it is doing by various means around the world – without arousing local opposition. Quite the reverse. All levels of Australian government have encouraged it.
It makes Darwin an interesting case study – a point of contest between the strategies of the US and China. Darwin’s port is under Chinese control, while thousands of US marines are based in the city, as part of the US “Pacific pivot” seen by many as an effort to contain China’s influence in the region.
How the port deal was done
The deal to lease parts of the port followed successive federal governments refusing to fund necessary upgrading of the port’s infrastructure to meet growing demand.
Infrastucture Australia advised privatisation. Rather than sell outright, the territory government decided to lease the port, and sell a controlling stake in the port’s operator.
Landbridge Australia, a subsidiary of Shandong Landbridge, won the 99-year lease with its bid of A$506 million in November 2015.
Shandong Landbridge has substantial and varied interests including port logistics and petrochemicals. Though privately owned, like many Chinese companies it has strong ties to the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
The company knows how to cultivate political connections. In Australia it gave influential Liberal Party figure and former trade minister Andrew Robb an $880,000 job just months after he retired from parliament.
The bid for the port was examined and approved by the Foreign Investments Review Board, the Defence Department and ASIO.
But the deal put Darwin directly in the crossfire between US and Chinese interests. Then US president Barack Obama expressed concern about the lack of consultation. Former deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage said he was “stunned” that Australia had “blind-sided” its ally.
While the centre of US-Chinese tensions is the South China Sea – where China has militarised reefs in disputed waters – Darwin is important because it is the southern flank of US operations in the Pacific.
Managing the tensions
Zhang Jie, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, wrote in 2015 about the concept of “first civilian, later military” – in which commercial ports are to be built with the goal of slowly being developed into “strategic support points” – to assist China defending maritime channel security and control key waterways.
Military-civilian integration was among the goals China set in its 13th five-year plan for 2016-20. President Xi subsequently established an integration committee to oversee civilian and military investment in technology.
As with other Chinese port acquisitions, such as in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Greece and Djibouti, Landbridge is interested in acquiring and developing not only Darwin’s port facilities but nearby waterfront property.
But the Darwin port deal differs in significant ways to other port acquisitions.
It is a far cry from the “debt-trap colonialism” China stands accused of using to gain leverage over other foreign governments, such as Sri Lanka and Nepal.
Landbridge has bought the lease, rather than a Chinese bank lending funds to the Northern Territory government to develop the port. If Landbridge was to default, it would lose its money. Any attempt by Landbridge to use the port as security to borrow money from a Chinese bank would trigger renegotiation of the lease.
The territory government retains a 20% stake in the port operator and has a say in key appointments such as the chief executive and chief financial officer. But it will not share any profit that Landbridge may eventually make.
That potential is a long way off. Landbridge Australia reported a loss of A$31 million for the 2017 financial year, with its total borrowings rising to A$463 million. If the deal falls over, the government will need to seek new equity partners. But its immediate commercial risks are relatively contained.
Yet risk exposure may take other forms. China’s strategy is very long-term. Darwin is now on the front line in managing tensions between Australia’s most important strategic ally and partner and its major trading partner. Balancing between powerful friends with competing interests may not prove easy.
There are indications of some recognition of this at the federal level. Australia’s foreign investment review processes have been tightened. A Critical Infrastructure Centre has been created to give extra national security advice. There has been some tweaking of rules about political parties accepting foreign donations.
But others may have learnt valuable lessons too.
Weaknesses in Australian governments at all levels have been revealed. They have been reactive, readily accepting the lure of pearls cast on our shores without considering longer-term currents. Foreign and strategic policy has effectively been left to the local level. While the federal government now seeks to shore up its interests in the Pacific with cash for infrastructure, similar commitments to investing in local infrastructure are essential.
Clumsiness and indecision do not serve Australian interests well.
There is an emerging view that there should be much greater use of evaluations of public policies, including randomised controlled trials (RCTs), to test the effectiveness of new policies before they are rolled out. This applies particularly to policies or programs for which there is limited or no evidence about their likely impact.
RCTs have been around for years in medicine and other sciences, and are increasingly being used by small and large companies to test products and services. Conceptually they are simple, although implementing one can be complex. A RCT involves selecting a sample from a population of interest and randomly dividing them into two groups (using the equivalent of a coin toss). One group is given an intervention (that is, a program or policy) and the other is not. If the RCT has been done properly, the differences in the outcomes of the two groups tells us the impact of the intervention being trialled.
There are other ways to try to measure causation, and some are necessary when an RCT isn’t possible. However, Shadow Assistant Treasurer Andrew Leigh argues in his new book Randomistas that:
Researchers have spent years thinking about how best to come up with credible comparison groups, but the benchmark to which they keep returning is the randomised controlled trial. There’s simply no better way to determine the counterfactual than to randomly allocate participants into two groups: one that gets the treatment, and another that does not.
While there is strong support within the policy and research community on the important role of trials and evaluations, we know far less about what the general public thinks about how policies should be implemented and to what extent they should be trialled before widespread introduction.
In a survey undertaken as part of the ANUPoll series, we ran an online survey experiment that measured the level of support for trials in general and RCTs in particular. We also looked at the factors that influence that support, and whether there is a causal relationship between expert opinion, party identification and support for an RCT.
That is, we ran an RCT on RCTs.
As part of the survey, we asked respondents to “consider a hypothetical proposal to reform” in one of five policy areas (school education; early childhood education; health; policing; support for those seeking employment). We then asked “which of the following approaches do you think the government should take?”:
Introduce the policy for everyone in Australia at the same time
Introduce the policy to everyone, but do it in stages
Trial on a small segment of the population who need it most, or
Trial on a small segment of the population chosen randomly,
We found that more people want new government policies rolled out without testing – except for jobless support.
Some key findings emerge:
There is a roughly even split between those who think a new policy should be introduced to everyone at once and those who think it should be trialled on a small segment of the population.
Respondents support trials for employment policies the most strongly but are most likely to support an RCT for a policy related to school education. They are least likely to support it for health service delivery and employment support.
Those who live in disadvantaged areas and those with low levels of education are the least supportive of RCTs.
What influence do experts’ views have?
The type of policy that is being proposed clearly matters for whether the general public thinks it should be trialled as part of an RCT. However, the views of those outside the political system also matter. We tested this potential effect by randomly varying the wording of the question across respondents.
One “treatment” that we applied to the question was to vary what respondents were told on whether experts generally support the policy, are generally opposed to the policy, or are divided on the policy (with one-third of respondents given each of the options).
The greatest support for a trial in general or an RCT in particular occurs when experts are generally opposed to the policy. Conversely, the least support for a trial or an RCT comes when experts are generally in support of the policy, implying respondents believe sufficient evidence must already exist. Support is somewhere in between when there is variation in support.
This has implications, we think, for researchers engaged in policy debates. One potential effect of arguing publicly for a different point of view to policymakers or other researchers is to increase the level of support for trials among the general population. We should make a case for uncertainty when it does exist, as that would appear to increase support for future gathering of evidence.
Indeed, this advocacy for uncertainty has underpinned the push for greater trials and evaluations in policy (and the social sciences).
It is clear that RCTs are likely to be increasingly used by policymakers to test the effect of policy interventions. However, to be truly effective and to avoid a backlash, RCTs need to be supported not only by researchers and policymakers but also by the general public. At first glance, this buy-in is a long way off.
And who wouldn’t enjoy a bit of a stoush between the big bad generators and the government, trying to break them up on our behalf?
Even if it was largely tangential to keeping prices low.
The “big stick” of forced divestiture, where the government through a court could order an energy company to sell off bits of itself, never made it to a vote in the final chaotic fortnight of parliament just finished.
It will be the subject of a Senate inquiry that will report on March 18. After that, parliament is set to sit for only seven days before the election, so its possible it’ll never happen, under this government.
It found against forced divestiture, but thought along similar lines to the government in some respects.
The legislation presented to parliament this month bans three types of misconduct:
electricity retailers’ failing to pass on cost savings
energy companies’ refusing to enter into hedge contracts (agreements to buy and sell at a particular price) with smaller competitors
generators’ manipulating the spot (short term) market, for example by withholding supply.
It imposes civil penalties for the first, forces companies to offer contracts for the second, and provides for divestiture orders for the third, after they have been recommended by the government and approved by the Federal Court.
There are good reasons for the government to act on the three behaviours, although each of the its proposed solutions raises concerns.
The ACCC wants something similar but different
Firstly, the ACCC did not identify the legislation’s first target as a major cause of high prices. They did observe that it is complicated to shop around and the offers are confusing, and sometime next year Australian governments will force retailers in some states to offer fairer default offers at an affordable price.
But it not clear why the energy sector has been singled out as an industry whose retailers have to pass on cost savings, and not supermarkets or banks or airlines or petrol stations, or any other kind of industry.
Secondly, the ACCC most certainly did raise concerns about dominant generator-retailers preferring not to enter into hedge contracts with competitors, particularly in South Australia.
It recommended that the Australian Energy Market Commission impose a “market making obligation” forcing large, so-called gentailers to buy and sell hedge contracts.
Its recommendation has the same intent as the one proposed by the government, although it has the advantage of being administered by a regulator that already exists.
Thirdly, the ACCC also concluded that concentration in the wholesale market means higher prices. Its report focused on the bidding activity of the Queensland government owned generator Stanwell Corporation.
The ACCC recommended giving powers to the Australian Energy Regulator to investigate and fix such problems.
It considered a divestiture mechanism of the kind in the government’s leglislation, but rejected it as extreme.
Its own less extreme recommendations would “if implemented, be a better means to restore competition to a level which serves consumers well”.
Breaking up corporations is a broader question
There may well be a case for breaking up corporations whose size prevents or substantially lessens competition. It happens overseas.
The government cites the example of the United States Sherman anti-trust legislation. It has been in place since 1890 and has been famously used to break up Standard Oil and AT&T. The ACCC does not have this power.
There is debate about whether it would work in the much smaller market of Australia.
It’s worth considering divestment powers broadly, rather than rushing to introduce them in one sector of the economy in what was to have been the leadup to Christmas because of a concern that its prices were too high.
The ACCC has already delivered a comprehensive report on the means to bring them down.
The government would be better served acting comprehensively on its recommendations.
Over the past four years, we have conducted a range of attitudinal surveys with the Social Research Institute at Ipsos on the relationship between trust in the political system and attitudes towards democracy in Australia.
Our latest research, conducted in July 2018 (prior to the Liberal Party’s leadership spill), includes a quantitative survey of a representative sample of 20 focus groups and 1,021 Australians from a wide range of demographic backgrounds. We understood political trust in this survey as “keeping promises and agreements”.
Our findings should give all democrats pause for thought. We continue to find compelling evidence of an increasing trust divide between government and citizens. This is reflected in the decline of democratic satisfaction and receding trust in politicians, political parties and other key institutions (especially media). We also found a lack of public confidence in the capacity of government to address public policy concerns.
Democratic decline and renewal
Australians should rightly be proud of their hard-won democratic traditions and freedoms and the achievement of stable government, which has delivered social and economic well-being for its citizens.
The majority of Australians dislike the conflict-driven politics of the federal parliament, but don’t dislike democratic values or democracy as a system of government.
When asked to select three aspects of Australian democracy that they liked the most, the top three in 2018 were (in order):
“Australia has been able to provide good education, health, welfare and other public services to its citizens”
“Australia has experienced a good economy and lifestyle”
“Australian elections are free and fair”.
Respondents were least likely to choose features that praised (or showed engagement) with current democratic politics. The findings suggest that Australians are happy with the underlying democratic infrastructure of Australian society that allows them to achieve a high standard of living, but are less positive or engaged about day-to-day political operations.
Australians are deeply unhappy with democratic politics
Fewer than 41% of Australian citizens are satisfied with the way democracy works in Australia, down from 86% in 2007. Public satisfaction has fallen particularly sharply since 2013, when 72% of Australian citizens were satisfied. Generation X is least satisfied (31%) and the Baby Boomers most satisfied (50%).
Just 31% of the population trust federal government. State and local governments perform little better, with just over a third of people trusting them. Ministers and MPs (whether federal or state) rate at just 21%, while more than 60% of Australians believe the honesty and integrity of politicians is very low.
The three biggest grievances people have with politicians are:
they are not accountable for broken promises
they don’t deal with the issues that really matter
big business has too much power (Liberal and National Party voters identify trade unions instead of big business).
The continued decline of political trust has also contaminated public confidence in other key political institutions. Only five rate above 50% – police, military, civic well-being organisations (such as Headspace or community services), universities and healthcare institutions.
Trust was lowest in political parties (16%) and web-based media (20%). Trust in banks and web-based media has significantly decreased since the last survey. This reflects the impact of the banking royal commission and the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data scandal.
People who are more likely to feel satisfied with the status quo include those aged over 55 (Baby Boomers), those earning more than $200,000 a year and those who vote for the National or Liberal parties. They are more likely to be male and an immigrant, because those born overseas tend to be more satisfied with Australian politics than native-born.
Those who are most likely to be unhappy are Australian-born, female, aged in their 40s (Generation X) and struggling on less than $50,000 a year. They are more likely to identify with minor political parties like One Nation, Centre Alliance or independents.
The perfect storm for independents
Levels of social trust are also in decline. Social trust between people has fallen below 50% for the first time to 47%. A majority, though, still believe that people in their neighbourhood would help others out – except for the very rich (47%).
Four attitudinal shifts are on display here.
First, many voters care more about effective and competent government than promises of more dollars in their pockets.
Second, there is a group of voters who are completely disconnected from traditional politics. They are deeply distrustful not just of politicians but almost every major institution and authority figure listed in the survey, except for their local GP.
Third, we can identify an increasingly large group of Australians who are deeply critical of the main political parties and are looking for an alternative across the ideological spectrum.
And fourth, there is a group of Australians who vote independent for tactical reasons, either to secure greater resources for their communities or to register a protest vote against the two-party system.
Appetite for democratic reform is extremely strong
Our survey revealed a significant appetite for reform. Nine out of 15 proposed reforms received net agreement rates above 50%. The top five reforms favoured in the survey were:
limiting money donated to parties and spent in elections
the right for voters to recall ineffective local MPs
giving all MPs a free vote in parliament
co-designing policies with ordinary Australians
citizen juries to solve complex problems that parliament can’t fix.
Reforms aimed at improving the practice of representative politics were the most popular, followed by reforms aimed at giving citizens a greater say. There was also strong support for reforms aimed at creating a stronger community or local focus to decision-making. Only reforms aimed at guaranteeing the representation of certain groups failed to attract majority support.
Remarkably, accessing more detailed information about innovative reforms led to greater support for those reforms. This is an important finding, revealing the importance of strategic communication in winning the war of ideas.
We are at the tipping point
Liberal democracies are founded on a delicate balance between trust and distrust. Our survey findings suggest we may have reached a tipping point due to a deepening trust divide in Australia, which has increased in scope and intensity since 2007.
Yet citizens still appear to value the overall stability of their political system, even if the lack of political trust means they doubt its ability to deliver, especially on more challenging policy issues.
Australians imagine their democracy in a way that demonstrates support for a new participatory politics but with the aim of shoring up representative democracy and developing a more integrated, inclusive and responsive democratic system. In the light of this discovery, we believe an effective path to reform is not about choosing between representative and participatory democratic models, but finding linking arrangements between them.
If anyone needs further evidence of the self-defeating weird places
the Liberals seem to find themselves in, consider what happened on
Malcolm Turnbull made another intervention in the political debate,
this time talking about the National Energy Guarantee, when he spoke
at an energy conference on Tuesday morning.
“I’ve strongly encouraged my colleagues to work together to revive the
National Energy Guarantee. It was a vital piece of economic policy and
had strong support, and none stronger I might say, than that of the
current Prime Minister and the current Treasurer,” he said.
This and the rest of Turnbull’s observations on energy policy provided
abundant material for a question time attack by a Labor party bloated
from dining on the unending manna that’s been flowing its way from
some political heaven.
As Scott Morrison sought to counter this latest attack by concentrating on
Labor’s substantial emissions reduction target (45% on 2005 levels by
2030), suddenly a tweet appeared from Turnbull.
“I have not endorsed “Labor’s energy policy”. They have adopted the
NEG mechanism,“ Turnbull said – adding a tick of approval – “but have
not demonstrated that their 45% emissions reduction target will not
push up prices. I encouraged all parties to stick with Coalition’s NEG
which retains wide community support.”
Here was the former PM effectively inserting himself into Question
Time – in real time.
Morrison quickly quoted from the tweet, but it couldn’t repair the
damage done by Turnbull’s earlier comments.
All round, it was another difficult day for the government on the energy front.
The Coalition parties meeting discussed its controversial plan
providing for divestiture when energy companies misuse market power,
with conduct that is “fraudulent, dishonest or in bad faith” in the wholesale market.
The government has put more constraints on its plan than originally
envisaged. Notably, rather than a divestiture decision resting with
the treasurer, it would lie with the federal court (although precisely what this would mean is somewhat unclear).
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg told a news conference: “This power will be on the advice
of the ACCC [the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission] to
the Treasurer, and then the Treasurer will make a referral to the
Federal Court. The Federal Court will then be empowered to make that
There had already been backbench criticisms of the divestiture proposal expressed to Frydenberg last week; the changes dealt with some of these.
But the plan is still leaving some in Coalition ranks uneasy.
According to the official government version, in the party room 18
speakers had a say, with 14 supporting (though a couple of them were
concerned about the interventionism involved) and four expressing
varying degrees of reservation. No one threatened to cross the floor.
Backbench sources said the strongest critics were Jason Falinski,
Russell Broadbent, Tim Wilson and former deputy Liberal leader Julie Bishop,
while milder criticisms came from Craig Laundy, Scott Ryan and Jane
There were two main worries about the measure – the potential negative
impact on business investment and its inconsistency with Liberal party
free market principles.
Bishop – who, it might be recalled, was recently saying there should
be a bipartisan deal with Labor on the NEG – highlighted the
investment implications and the issue of sovereign risk.
She said: “This is not orthodox Liberal policy. We need to do more
consultation with the industry and we need to be cautious of
unintended consequences of forced divestiture”.
Addressing the concerns, Morrison told the party room that a variety
of principles were at play.
The energy sector was not “a free market nirvana” but rather “a
bastardised market,” he said. The law was targeted at situations where
sweetheart deals came at the expense of consumers.
Energy minister Angus Taylor said governments of the centre-right,
including the Menzies and the Thatcher governments, had acted to
ensure markets operated for consumers.
Taylor invoked an example of the beer drinkers against the brewers,
when Thatcher had been on the side of the beers drinkers.
Frydenberg produced a quote from Menzies’ “Forgotten People”
broadcasts about the need to balance the requirements of industry with
The legislation, which is opposed by Labor even with the changes, is
being introduced this week. But there is no guarantee that it can be
passed by the time of the election – not least because there are so
few sitting days next year.
So the most controversial part of the government’s “big stick”, which
has caused so much angst with business, may never become a reality.
On December 10, the world marks 70 years since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Regrettably, instead of the anniversary signalling the enduring impact of human rights, some are fearing the “end of human rights”. Here we highlight some of the rights challenges that captured the world’s attention this year, illustrating the struggle to secure human rights is far from over.
1. Australia’s first year on the UN Human Rights Council
Australia took its place on the UN Human Rights Council this year for a three-year term. Australia delivered a strong statement about Myanmar’s atrocities against ethnic Rohingya Muslims, but was criticised for holding refugees and asylum seekers offshore. While Australia supported important country resolutions, it failed to take a leadership role on any key issues.
2. United States’ retreat from Human Rights Council
The US faced international condemnation when it quit the Human Rights Council, calling it a “protector of human rights abusers and a cesspool of political bias”. The US has long complained of the council’s perceived bias against Israel. But, by withdrawing, the US decreased its options for confronting and addressing human rights violators. This increases the responsibility of governments like Australia’s to ensure the council addresses the world’s most serious human rights violations.
3. Violence against women
In Australia, while the #MeToo movement has spurred women to come forward with their experiences of sexual harassment and abuse, a number of high-profile cases of alleged sexual harassment by actors and politicians highlighted ongoing barriers to justice for victims. At the same time, the #countingdeadwomen femicide index reports that one woman in Australia is killed every week by an intimate partner.
4. Facebook’s reckoning
Free speech, privacy and electoral integrity came under the microscope in March, when a former employee of Cambridge Analytica blew the whistle on its practice of harvesting data from millions of US Facebook users in an effort to influence the 2016 presidential elections.
There is also growing criticism of Facebook for not doing enough to stop its use to spread hate speech. For example, in Myanmar it has been used as a tool to incite violence against Rohingya.
5. Rohingya crisis
In August, a UN Fact Finding Mission on Myanmar, which included Australian human rights expert Chris Sidoti, delivered a scathing report detailing crimes against humanity, war crimes, sexual violence and possible genocide by Myanmar’s security forces against the Rohingya.
The UN Human Rights Council, in response, created a mechanism to collect and preserve evidence to aid future prosecutions for atrocity crimes in Myanmar. Australia joined other Western nations in imposing targeted sanctions on military officers named in the UN report. While the Australian government maintains an arms embargo on Myanmar, our defence forces continue to provide training to the Myanmar military.
6. Crackdown against Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang
Turkic Muslims in China’s northwestern Xinjiang region have long faced repression. In 2018, Human Rights Watch and others reported an escalation in this repression with the government detaining 1 million people in political re-education camps, with evidence of their torture and mistreatment. Muslims not detained still face pervasive controls on freedom of movement and religion. The Foreign Affairs Department revealed under parliamentary questioning that three Australians were detained in the camps.
7. Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia made international headlines when a prominent journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The case prompted a closer examination of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record. The country’s repression, imprisonment and ill-treatment of activists includes the alleged torture of leading women’s rights defenders.
In Yemen, the Saudi-led coalition has committed many violations of international humanitarian law, including apparent war crimes, killing thousands of civilians. Millions of Yemenis are confronting a famine, in part because of restrictions on aid delivery. Yet the USA, UK, France and Australia sell the Saudi government weapons and military equipment that may well contribute to its Yemen campaign.
8. Children off Nauru
Australia’s government appeared to respond to the “Kids Off Nauru” campaign launched by civil society groups, medical professionals and lawyers. December figures show ten refugee children remain on the island, down from 119 children in August.
Mounting political pressure forced the government to remove children who had been transferred there in 2013 and 2014, though many were removed from Nauru only after legal proceedings were started. But the departure of families makes the situation even more desperate for the adults left behind. And those transferred to Australia are told they will not remain permanently, keeping them in limbo.
9. One year since the Uluru statement
Indigenous communities have fought hard throughout 2018 to have the federal government focus on the Uluru Statement from the Heart, after the Turnbull government dismissed it out of hand in 2017.
The statement calls for a constitutionally enshrined “First Nations Voice” in parliament and the establishment of a Makarrata Commission to supervise agreement-making between governments and First Nations, and facilitate truth-telling of First Nations’ histories. These steps were seen as laying the foundation for a treaty with Australia’s First Nations peoples. A 2018 parliamentary committee endorsed the need for a voice in parliament and has called for a process of co-design between Indigenous people and government appointees.
10. LGBTI discrimination
One year on from the breakthrough on marriage equality, the parliamentary year ended with Australia’s politicians unable to find a way to remove legislative exemptions allowing religious schools to discriminate against LGBTI pupils and teachers.
Advocates and the Labor opposition rejected government amendments that sought to stop schools being able to exclude students on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity, or sex characteristics, but would also allow them to enforce rules in line with their religious teachings.
Scott Morrison has announced a major change in Liberal party rules to
ensure a prime minister who wins an election serves the full term,
unless two thirds of the party decides otherwise.
Morrison said the Liberal party had heard the public and was responding.
The entire party understood “the frustration and the disappointment
that Australians have felt when governments and prime ministers that
they have elected, under their authority, under their power, have been
taken from them through the actions of politicians here in Canberra,”
he said at a joint news conference with Liberal deputy Josh Frydenberg
on Monday night.
This had happened with the Liberal party as well as Labor, Morrison
said. “We acknowledge it and we take responsibility for it.”
The Australian people were “sick of it and we’re sick of it and it has to stop,” he said.
The Liberal party was “willingly and enthusiastically putting this
constraint to return the power of these decisions about who is prime
minister in this country to the Australian people.”
Morrison described the rule change as historic and the biggest in the
74 years of the party’s history.
Frydenberg said: “The changes in Australian prime ministers over the
last decade has diminished the parliament and its representatives in
the eyes of the public. The Liberal party has listened to the
Australian people and the Liberal parliamentary party has responded
Earlier, Liberal members of the ministry approved the new rule, before
it went to an evening special meeting of the Liberal parliamentarians.
Morrison discussed the proposed change with former prime minister John
Howard, but not with Malcolm Turnbull.
He briefed Tony Abbott who was the first speaker from the floor.
Strongly supporting the proposal, Abbott – who lost the prime
ministership before he had served a full term – thanked Morrison for
bringing him into his confidence.
Morrison said the change was carried by consensus. He declined to be
drawn on differences expressed within the meeting.
He said he had asked the party whips, Nola Marino and David Bushby, to
work up a proposal. He’d had a view for some time that something
needed to be done.
The party meeting discussed whether the threshold should be two thirds
or three quarters. There was some questioning about the position of a PM who had the weight of the party against them but was just under the threshold for change.
But speakers who had differences on the detail made it clear they would swing in behind what was finally decided.
The Labor party already has rules that restrain leadership changes
including of an opposition leader, although they could be altered by a
simple majority of caucus.
In August after the ousting of Turnbull, Kevin Rudd urged the Liberals to
follow Labor’s example “to prevent rolling political chaos.”
Howard said then “I don’t think changing the rules is a good idea”, adding “What’s the point of bringing in rules if, in any event, they can be set aside?”
Morrison said the Liberal rule on prime ministers was tougher because
it would take a two thirds majority to alter it. But it does not cover
Rebel right wing Liberal Craig Kelly is a paradox – a man who
chronically lacks the numbers but possesses the power to force prime
ministers to protect him.
On Monday, fresh from a G20 where he was less than feted, Scott
Morrison heavied a few moderates on the NSW Liberal executive. A
wobbly cross-factional deal to preserve Kelly held together.
In the process former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull’s nose was
bloodied. Turnbull had tried to persuade the moderates to veto the
endorsement – which would have pushed Kelly to a preselection ballot he’d have lost.
Turnbull’s foray was counter-productive, for the party and himself.
Moderate backbencher Trent Zimmerman told the ABC that “Malcolm’s intervention made it hard for the executive to do anything other than what they did”.
Though once Morrison’s authority was on the line, the executive could do little but what he wanted.
It was very different from 2016 when Turnbull urged support for Kelly, writing that he had “a fine reputation for standing up for his local constituents and was unafraid of taking on controversial issues”.
Back then, pressure from Turnbull led Kelly’s opponent Kent Johns to
agree not to stand for the preselection.
Johns kept up his branch numbers and prepared for another tilt. But
lightning struck twice.
In a tweet on Monday that seemed remarkable for its restraint Johns,
who is a NSW Liberal vice-president, said, “While disappointed, I
respect and accept the Party’s decision, and will continue to serve
the Party and proudly campaign for the re-election of the Coalition
Before the last election supporters of Kelly were quoted as warning “a
challenge against him would send the message the party is becoming a
version of the Labor Party.” Kelly’s backers never let up on referring
to Johns’ Labor background.
This year, the times suited Kelly. The right is strong within the
party. And with the Morrison government now dealing with a hung
parliament, the risk that a disendorsed Kelly could defect to the
crossbench, and run as an independent, loomed large.
Morrison asserted on Thursday that the possibility of Kelly going to
the crossbench had “never been the subject of our conversations.”
It didn’t have to be – the threat has hung in the air for months –
although Kelly has been all over the place in his comments.
For example in May the ABC reported Kelly was “understood to have told local members that he will resign from the Coalition and sit as an independent, if the ‘higher powers that be’ do not secure his
nomination’. But he’s now told Sky News he will remain a Liberal no matter what happens.”
Kelly is a favourite of the right wing commentariat.
In 2016 Alan Jones said: “Let me say to Kent Johns and anyone else who’s thinking of standing for the preselection out there and to put a torpedo under this bloke. You’d better pull your head in, Kent Johns. Because I’ll tell you what: if you put your head up, there’ll be a hell of a story that’ll be told about you, Mr Johns.”
On Sunday night Sky’s Paul Murray went through Turnbull’s tweets on the Kelly preselection, branding them “lies”.
Kelly has had a special place on Sky, with so many appearances his
colleagues joke he must have a sleeping bag there.
As chair of the Coalition’s backbench energy and environment
committee, a spruiker for coal, and close to Tony Abbott, Kelly ran a
constant and unhelpful commentary on the Turnbull government’s attempt
to get an energy policy together.
He helped kill the NEG (and thus Turnbull’s prime ministership) – he
was one of those threatening to cross the floor if the associated
legislation on emissions went ahead.
Turnbull is correct when he says that overriding a local preselection
contradicts the recent push by the right of the party for a more
This point isn’t negated by the fact that the preselection panel Kelly
would have faced was a transition one – changes that have been made to
the system are not fully operating yet. It would have been a more
democratic preselection than the executive deciding to have no ballot
It is reasonable for some Liberal women, and others, to compare
the treatment of Kelly with that of Jane Prentice, a moderate from the
When she lost a preselection in May, there was no special fix, despite
the fact she was an assistant minister. Prentice did not threaten to
go to the crossbench. She’s now quietly on the backbench serving out
There are multiple messages in the Kelly affair. They are about the
power of the right; the willingness to abandon process (the closeness
to an election is no excuse – the Kelly preselection should have been
held months ago), and the desperation of the Prime Minister.
Postscript: In the Senate on Monday Labor’s Glenn Sterle asked members
of the public observing proceedings, “How many people in the gallery
respect your politicians? Put your hand up if you do.” No hands went