Competing foreign interests trump Syrian aspirations for political change


File 20180510 5968 kmmr9f.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
International powers with conflicting interests have helped the Bashar al-Asad government to consolidate its power.
from http://www.shutterstock.com, CC BY-SA

Hanlie Booysen, Victoria University of Wellington

The United States’ withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal exacerbated the violence in Syria. But to understand how Syria became the theatre for proxy wars, we have to return to the Arab uprisings.

Syria is the outlier in the Arab uprisings, as again demonstrated by last month’s air strikes.




Read more:
US airstrikes in Syria nothing more than theater


In 2011, public protests forced long-standing dictators Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak from power in Tunisia and Egypt, respectively. Scholars questioned the notion that authoritarianism is a permanent feature of Arab politics. Not anymore. At least in Syria there is no doubt that the Bashar al-Asad government is consolidating its power.

I explore what makes Syria different from Tunisia and Egypt and why Syrian aspirations for political change have not eventuated.

People want political reforms

It is worth going back to March 2011. School boys, influenced by the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, wrote “al-sha‘b yurid isqat al-nidham” or “the people want the fall of the regime” on a wall in the southern Syrian city of Dar‘a. The authorities responded by detaining and torturing the boys, which sparked public protests, first in Dar‘a and then in neighbouring towns and villages.

Initially, Syrians were not calling for the fall of the regime. At a conference in April 2011, even the banned Syrian Muslim Brotherhood (SMB) preferred political reforms to outright revolution. A member of the executive recalled in an interview in 2015:

We as Syrians were calling for reform and calling for Bashar [al-Asad] to lead that reform.

This was not a new position for the SMB. From its formation in 1946, it participated in Syria’s early parliamentary democracy. The Brotherhood secured three seats in parliament in 1947, three in 1949 and ten in 1961. But the SMB’s parliamentary experience came to an abrupt end with the Ba‘th party’s military coup on March 8, 1963.

Excluded from parliamentary politics, and in the context of an Islamic insurgency turned uprising, the SMB adopted armed jihad in 1979. Membership of the Brotherhood was made a capital offence in 1980, and after the violent standoff between the Syrian government and Islamists in the city of Hama in 1982, the SMB was all but eradicated from Syria.

In exile, the SMB maintained its commitment to parliamentary democracy, and renewed its early commitment to non-violent political change. Its 2004 political platform emphasises democratic principles. It paved the way for the 2005 Damascus Declaration, a joined project between the SMB and the secularist opposition, to unseat the Bashar al-Asad government.

Bashar al-Asad survived both his international isolation in 2005, and the Damascus Declaration, only to face the Syrian uprising six years later. From exile, the SMB again confirmed its commitment to parliamentary politics in 2012, with an added emphasis on “equal citizenship”.

From uprising to civil war

By 2012 violence had become the new normal in Syria. The al-Asad government’s use of force and its pardon of radical Islamists caused the metamorphosis of the Syrian uprising, first into an insurgency, and then a civil war. Opposition groups across the political spectrum, with few exceptions, were supporting an armed struggle in 2012. In March, the SMB’s shura (consultative council) also endorsed armed jihad and pledged moral and material support to the secularist Free Syrian Army. Later, the SMB also provided financial support to armed groups that shared its moderate or “centrist” stance.

The militarisation of the Syrian uprising served the al-Asad regime’s survival. However, scholars argue that it takes “extensive resources” to create and maintain armed groups, which is where Russia, the United States and its Western allies, as well as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey entered the picture, and in turn serve to maintain the multiple wars in Syria.

The United States and its allies initially provided some support to certain rebel groups, but Washington’s priority since September 2014 has been to defeat the Islamic State group.

Russia’s primary interest in Syria is to prevent regime change, as it occurred in Libya in 2011. Apart from using its veto in the UN Security Council, in September 2015 Russia started using its military air power, which enabled the Bashar al-Asad government to reclaim territory that it lost to the rebels earlier in 2015.

Regional interests and the Syrian conflict

Iran’s focus is on countering United States and Israeli hegemony in the region, while the interests of Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar initially coincided with those of the political opposition in exile, including the SMB. However, national objectives, primarily Ankara’s campaign against the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, currently drive the Turkish military campaign in the north of Syria.

Saudi Arabia’s primary interest is to contain Iran’s influence in the region, including in Syria, as well as to prevent an “uprising” at home. Qatar’s ability to influence developments in the region, and in Syria in particular, has been curtailed by the military coup against the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and the Saudi-led isolation of Qatar.




Read more:
Qatar and the art of ‘brotherly’ diplomacy


The numerous and competing foreign interests in Syria have shown the UN Security Council to be an utter failure. In an unusual show of unity, the UNSC accepted the Russian plan in 2013 to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile. It inadvertently strengthened Bashar al-Asad’s legitimacy.

The ConversationThe United States-led airstrikes this April against chemical weapons storage and production facilities attest to the UNSC’s inability to safeguard a rules-based international order. They also, again, served Bashar al-Asad’s political survival. As long as regime survival serves the interests of the main foreign actors involved in the Syrian conflict, authoritarianism will trump the Syrian opposition’s aspirations for political change.

Hanlie Booysen, PhD Candidate and Tutor in Religious Studies, Victoria University of Wellington

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Advertisements

Let’s get moving with the affordable medium-speed alternatives to the old dream of high-speed rail


Philip Laird, University of Wollongong

More than half a century has passed since high-speed rail (HSR) effectively began operating, in Japan in 1964, and it has been mooted for Australia since 1984. I estimate that the cost of all HSR studies by the private and public sectors in Australia exceeds $125 million, in today’s dollars. But the federal government is now less interested in high-speed rail (now defined as electric trains operating on steel rails at maximum speeds of above 250km per hour), and instead favours “faster rail” or medium-speed rail.

The 2017 federal budget provided $20 billion over the next 10 years for rail, with more allocated in the 2018 budget. It is now time for Australia to commit to medium-speed rail (trains operating on new or existing tracks at speeds of between 160km and 250km/h).

Indeed, three states have made progress in developing trains at 160km/h, with Victoria leading the way. New South Wales has failed to keep up with these states.

What happened to high-speed rail in Australia?

The first high-speed rail system dates back to 1964 when the Tokaido Shinkansen started operating between Tokyo and Osaka. At first, it took four hours to travel 515 kilometres; now some trains take two-and-a-half hours. Japan’s system has an impeccable safety record and the network extends for over 3,000km.

An image prepared in 1984 by the late Phil Belbin of what the Very Fast Train south of Canberra could look like.
Courtesy of Railway Digest (ARHS/NSW) June 2004, Author provided

France was next in 1981 with its TGV trains. In 1984, high-speed rail was first proposed for Australia. This was the CSIRO’s Very Fast Train proposal to link Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne using TGV trains.

At all levels, government was not supportive. The private sector, after a series of studies, found it was viable and could work with different taxation arrangements. This was not forthcoming and work stopped in 1991.

An image from the 1990s of a SpeedRail train at Central Station.
Courtesy of Railway Digest (ARHS/NSW), Author provided

A more modest proposal, called Speedrail, to connect Sydney and Canberra was proposed in the mid-1990s. With some federal government encouragement, it was studied, with detailed design. It was costed at about $4.5 billion, with finance arranged for some $3.5 billion. The Howard government would not fund the balance and commissioned yet another HSR study.




Read more:
Can Australian high speed rail overcome its bumpy history?


More studies have followed. One study in 2013 put a price tag of $23 billion on a Sydney-Canberra line involving much tunnelling in Sydney. This was part of a 1,750km high-speed rail corridor linking Brisbane, Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne. The total estimated cost was A$114 billion.

Despite many studies recommending the need to identify and protect a corridor for a future high-speed rail network, government has failed to reserve any land corridors (with the exception of part of a future Melbourne outer metropolitan ring road).

What about the alternatives?

Many countries do not have high-speed rail, but have medium-speed rail (MSR) instead. These countries include Sweden, Switzerland, the United States and Canada.

Queensland’s Tilt Train intercity service has been running for nearly 20 years.
QRtrains/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

Three Australian states have trains operating at 160km/h. These are Queensland, starting in 1998 with its Electric Tilt Train service between Brisbane and Rockhampton, Victoria, with its Regional Fast Rail project using V/Locity diesel multiple units, and Western Australia, with the Prospector train.

Victoria’s service originated in 1999 when the then Labor opposition promised a new deal for regional Victoria, which included new trains and upgraded tracks on four lines to Bendigo, Ballarat, Geelong and Gippsland. The ALP won government that year. By 2006 the track upgrades were delivered along with new trains made in Victoria.

People liked the faster trains. Patronage went up by more than 15% in each of the first three years of operation. More trains were ordered and further major track upgrades followed.

Victoria was assisted by $3 billion in federal funding for a Regional Rail Link program. This was to provide new intercity tracks in Melbourne so suburban trains did not slow down regional trains.

Due to good ongoing planning attracting more federal funding,
further track upgrades are under way. The 2017 Victorian Infrastructure Plan outlines priorities and funding for projects over the next five years, with longer-term policy directions.

So what’s going on in NSW?

Questions are now being asked as to why Victoria and WA are doing do well with federal funding for passenger rail at the expense of NSW.

The rail situation in Australia’s most populated state is not good for its regions. By far the most NSW government attention and funding has gone into the Greater Sydney region.

Between the 2011 and the 2016 Censuses, Greater Sydney’s population (including Gosford) grew some 10% from 4.39 to 4.82 million. Rail patronage on the Sydney and intercity network had even stronger growth of some 15% from 2011 to 2016.

To try to cope with this increasing demand for rail a new Metro section is due to be completed in 2019. Light rail is also being introduced in Sydney, Newcastle and Parramatta.

Sydney continues to have serious road traffic problems, which are unlikely to be solved by WestConnex Stages 1 and 2 that are now under construction. The proposed Stage 3 received over 7,000 objections, including a sensible alternative proposal by the City of Sydney, but the NSW government has approved Stage 3 and even more motorways. This is despite overseas experience for cities the size of Sydney pointing to the best solution being a much-improved rail system with road congestion pricing.




Read more:
Road user charging belongs on the political agenda as the best answer for congestion management


Regional NSW is also growing in population, albeit not as quickly as Sydney. In spring 2017, Transport for NSW released a draft regional servicea and infrastructure plan not for the next five years, but out to 2056. However, these plans were very vague as to what may be delivered in the next five or even ten years.

The plans also omitted earlier Infrastructure NSW goals for Sydney-Gosford and Sydney-Wollongong trains to take one hours (instead of one-and-a-half) and Sydney-Newcastle trains to take two hours. In addition, there are calls for more and faster trains linking to each of Goulburn/Canberra and the Central West of NSW.

Clearly, NSW is facing major transport challenges to overcome rail infrastructure backlogs and meet the needs of a growing population.

The state government is getting new intercity electric trains and has committed to buying new regional trains. But it’s yet to commit to track upgrades to help the new trains go faster than the present slow ones.

The NSW ALP opposition is also yet to present detailed policies of how it would meet the transport challenges in Sydney and in regional NSW.

The ConversationThe people of NSW must hope the state budget due June 19 and the opposition leader’s reply will address these issues.

Philip Laird, Honorary Principal Fellow, University of Wollongong

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Here’s why flu vaccinations should be mandatory for Aussie health workers in high-risk areas



File 20180509 4803 via7fs.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Despite the numerous campaigns promoting the flu vaccine to Australian health workers, uptake has been documented to range from only 16-60%.
Tatiana Chekryzhova/Shutterstock

C Raina MacIntyre, UNSW and Holly Seale, UNSW

On June 1, health workers in New South Wales will be required to have a flu vaccination if they work in high-risk clinical areas, such as wards for neonatal care, transplants and cancer. Otherwise staff are required to wear surgical masks during the flu season or risk being redeployed.

NSW is the only state to make flu vaccination mandatory for some health workers. It aims to protect vulnerable patients and the health system from another disastrous flu season like in 2017. While the federal government has told aged care providers they must offer the flu vaccine to their staff this winter, there is no requirement for staff to accept the vaccine.

Despite the numerous campaigns promoting the flu vaccine to Australian health workers, uptake has been documented to range from only 16-60%, with an even lower rate reported among aged-care workers.




Read more:
Protecting our elderly: beating flu outbreaks in nursing homes


The most effective way to improve vaccination rates among health workers is to make it mandatory. State, territory and Commonwealth governments should consider making the flu shot mandatory for all health workers in high-risk clinical areas and aged care facilities.

Why health workers need to be vaccinated

For most of us, vaccination is for individual protection. In the case of those caring for sick and vulnerable people such as children and the elderly, vaccination protects others from devastating illness, complications and even death.

Hospitals and aged care facilities can experience explosive outbreaks of influenza.
Aged care facilities may have to close their doors to new admissions, which can also have a significant economic impact. It’s also important that staff absenteeism in hospitals is kept low, especially in areas with limited specialist expertise.

Some argue vaccination of health workers is a moral duty, while others state individual freedom of choice is more important than protection of patients.

Mandating vaccination

The use of immunisation mandates for health-care workers is not new in Australia. In most states and territories, staff are required to have vaccines for (or show evidence of protection against) measles, mumps, rubella, diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, hepatitis B, and varicella (chicken pox).

NSW, for example, introduced mandatory vaccination of health care workers for several vaccines (but not the flu) in 2007. NSW health workers generally accepted this change in policy, with only 4% objecting.

Making the flu shot mandatory, as NSW has done this year, would simply add the the list of vaccinations health workers are required to have.

NSW is the only state to make flu vaccination mandatory for some health workers.
from http://www.shutterstock.com

The evidence suggests it’s worth it; a five-year study in one hospital in the United States showed mandatory hospital policies can raise coverage rates to close to 100%.

Institutions that have implemented a mandatory policy have dramatically reduced employee sick days as well as flu in hospitals, thereby improving patient safety and reducing health care costs.

Staff vaccination programs

Most workplaces run intensive vaccination programs, which may include mass immunisation clinics, mobile carts, posters and email reminders. But in most cases, these programs aren’t successful at boosting vaccination levels above 60%.

Some hospitals have been able to achieve higher vaccination rates in the short term through easy access to vaccines, education, reminders and multiple opportunities for vaccination. But these initiatives require ongoing resources and continual efforts – a one-off vaccination day is not enough.




Read more:
Flu vaccine won’t definitely stop you from getting the flu, but it’s more important than you think


The Victorian health system used a slightly different approach in 2014 when it made high rates of flu vaccination a hospital performance target. The government also provided the vaccine free to all Victorian hospitals.

This raised vaccination rates among Victorian hospital staff from 60% to 75% overall (higher in some hospitals). But higher rates may be achieved through mandatory flu vaccination.

But it’s not always the best policy

For each situation, we need to consider the overall risks and benefits of mandatory vaccination, as well as the gains in protection and vaccination coverage.

For infant vaccination, for example, vaccination rates are already at a high baseline of more than 93%. So, the risk of coercive policies may be greater than the relatively small gains achieved by coercive methods. Similar results may be achieved through other methods.

There’d be little point mandating vaccines for infants since they already have high rates of vaccination.
from http://www.shutterstock.com

In the case of health and aged-care workers, however, we start with a lower base of vaccine coverage, of 16-60%. Adding financial incentives or disincentives, or making it mandatory, would result in much larger gains in vaccination rates.

Vaccinating health-care workers also has benefits beyond their individual protection: it reduces the risk of their patients contracting influenza and maintains the health workforce capacity. This shifts the balance in favour of mandatory vaccination.

The ConversationGiven large potential gains and low resource requirements, mandatory flu vaccination for all health workers in high-risk areas is a good idea. Governments should consider this and other strategies to improve flu vaccination rates health and aged care workers.

C Raina MacIntyre, Professor of Global Biosecurity, NHMRC Principal Research Fellow, Head, Biosecurity Program, UNSW and Holly Seale, Senior Lecturer, UNSW

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Explainer: how the Australian intelligence community works



File 20180509 34021 zjlpgv.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Malcolm Turnbull has put Peter Dutton at the head of the Home Affairs super portfolio.
AAP/Glenn Hunt

John Blaxland, Australian National University

This article is the first in a five-part series exploring Australian national security in the digital age.


National security, intelligence and espionage have been in the headlines due to events abroad and significant developments at home. News of diplomatic expulsions, cyber-attacks, leaked documents about sweeping new surveillance powers and the creation of a new Home Affairs Department make it hard to follow.

What’s more, everyone has heard of the CIA, for instance, but Australia’s own national security organisations are comparatively unknown. So how is intelligence gathered? What are Australia’s peak national security bodies and how do they interact?

Australia’s national security architecture consists of a number of federal government departments and agencies, with links to state government counterparts. These include the state police forces and counter-terrorism authorities. Those arrangements are in transition, the full details of which are still to unfold.

The major players

The peak national security body in the Commonwealth is the National Security Committee of Cabinet (NSC). It includes the ministers of the principal departments concerned with national security, including the Departments of Defence, Home Affairs, Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Attorney-General, Prime Minister and Cabinet, and Treasury.

Several of the ministers on the NSC oversee a range of national security bodies. These have emerged as a result of trial and error, royal commissions and various reforms over several decades.

For starters, the defence portfolio includes a range of military intelligence units. There are hundreds of uniformed intelligence practitioners across the nation in the navy, air force and army, as well as in the Headquarters Joint Operations Command in Canberra. It also includes three of the nation’s principal intelligence agencies (with a mix of civilian and military intelligence practitioners):

• the Defence Intelligence Organisation (DIO), defence’s principal intelligence assessment agency

• the Australian Geospatial Intelligence Organisation (AGO), responsible for satellite and aerial imagery intelligence, maps, nautical charts and related geo-spatial products

• the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD), responsible for the collection and processing of signals intelligence (essentially, eavesdropping on radio and electronic transmissions).

ASD’s motto, “to reveal their secrets and protect our own”, captures the essence of its functions, which have been the subject of recent controversy after leaked documents proposed giving the ASD domestic surveillance powers.

The antecedents of these defence agencies date back to the intelligence organisations established, alongside their American and British counterparts, during the second world war. The ties to that era have endured in the so-called “Five Eyes” intelligence arrangement.

Initially focused on signals intelligence (the principal remit of ASD), Five Eyes is a trusted network between the US, Britain, Australia and the two other predominantly English-speaking allies from that era, Canada and New Zealand.

The title was a derivative of the stamp used to restrict the dissemination of sensitive intelligence to a particular classification: “SECRET – AUS/CAN/NZ/UK/US EYES ONLY” – hence Five Eyes.

Nowadays, the network extends beyond signals intelligence and defence circles to include a broader range of departments, including the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT).

DFAT is Australia’s principal agency tasked with “promoting and protecting our interests internationally and contributing to global stability and economic growth”. As part of that role, it is responsible for diplomatic reporting. Much of the information Australia gathers from counterpart governments abroad is collected openly, but discreetly, by Australia’s diplomats.

In addition, the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) is in the foreign minister’s portfolio. Established in 1952 and tasked with the collection overseas of secret intelligence, the ASIS mission is listed as being “to protect and promote Australia’s vital interests through the provision of unique foreign intelligence services as directed by the Australian Government”. This is otherwise known as human intelligence collection or, in traditional terms, foreign espionage.

Countering foreign espionage (particularly from Soviet, later Russian and other countries operating in Australia) is the remit of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO). Established in 1949, ASIO has been part of the attorney-general’s portfolio until now.

Today, ASIO’s purpose is described as being to “counter terrorism and the promotion of communal violence”, “counter serious threats to Australia’s border integrity”, “provide protective security advice to government and business” and “counter espionage, foreign interference and malicious insiders”.

The Office of National Assessments (ONA) is Australia’s peak intelligence assessment agency. It was established in 1977, after the Royal Commission on Intelligence and Security commissioned by then Prime Minister Gough Whitlam and chaired by Justice Robert Marsden Hope.

ONA was established to help coordinate priorities across related intelligence agencies. Today, it is charged with assessing and analysing international political, strategic and economic developments for the prime minister and senior ministers. ONA draws on the intelligence collected by the other intelligence agencies, as well as unclassified, or “open source”, intelligence and material provided by international partners.

The agencies mentioned so far – ONA, ASIO, ASIS, AGO, ASD and DIO – form what has come to be known as the Australian Intelligence Community (AIC). The AIC emerged from the reforms initiated by Justice Hope in the 1970s and 1980s, notably following the 1977 commission and the 1985 Royal Commission on Australia’s Security and Intelligence Agencies. The combined effect of these commissions was that ONA was tasked with coordinating intelligence priorities along with the other agencies.

The tangled web of the Australian Intelligence Community.
Office of National Assessments

A greater level of scrutiny

Another mechanism that emerged during this period was the office of the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security (IGIS), currently held by former Federal Court judge Margaret Stone. Established in 1987 with the enduring power of a royal commissioner, the IGIS has extraordinary powers to inspect and review the operations of AIC agencies.

The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS) exists to provide a level of parliamentary oversight, complementing the work of the IGIS. It conducts inquiries into matters referred by the Senate, the House of Representatives or a minister of the Commonwealth government.

The Intelligence Services Act 2001 saw legislation more closely account for the functions that AIC members were expected to perform and the Inspector General monitors. In addition, an Independent National Security Legislation Monitor (INSLM) was established.

The 2017 Independent Intelligence Review was the third such review since 2001. As part of the review, ONA is to become the Office of National Intelligence (ONI), exercising oversight of the expanded National Intelligence Community (NIC). This covers the initial six AIC members and four additional ones described below.

In addition, ASD is being established as a statutory body (still under the defence minister, but administered separately from the rest of the Defence Department) alongside other principal agencies ASIO and ASIS.

An expanded community with ambiguous oversight

The ONI is now tasked with overseeing implementation of recommendations arising from the 2017 review. This includes managing the four-body expansion to the ten-agency NIC.

These four bodies have played an increasingly prominent national security role since 2001. They are:

• the Australian Federal Police (AFP), with a remit for criminal intelligence and counter-terrorism

• the Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre (AUSTRAC), Australia’s specialist financial intelligence unit

• the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC), responsible for “investigative, research and information delivery services work with law enforcement partners”.

• the Australian Border Force (ABF), described as Australia’s customs service and an “operationally independent” agency in the Home Affairs portfolio.

These agencies work in conjunction with other AIC agencies as well as state police and security counterparts.

The 2017 independent review was announced at the same time the new Home Affairs Department was made public. These four bodies are among the agencies transitioning to the Home Affairs portfolio. This has complicated arrangements for implementing the review recommendations and left considerable ambiguity concerning overlap of changed arrangements.

The INSLM certainly has a significant task as well and the PJCIS will be growing in staff to meet the expanded set of responsibilities outlined by the 2017 review as our intelligence community grows from six to ten agencies.

The ConversationImplementing the 2017 review recommendations alone presents a significant challenge. The creation of Home Affairs on top of this adds to the complexity at a time of growing security challenges.

John Blaxland, Professor, Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Trust is the second casualty in the war on terror



File 20180423 75119 9xwa43.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
The challenge for legislators, courts and the wider community is to ensure any interference with privacy is minimal, rather than merely lawful.
Shutterstock

Bruce Baer Arnold, University of Canberra

This article is the second in a five-part series exploring Australian national security in the digital age. Read part one here.


Contrary to doomsaying by pundits or empire-building by politicians and the surveillance-industrial complex, the so-called War on Terror doesn’t mean we should – or must – kiss goodbye to our privacy.

It also doesn’t mean we can forget the accountability of governments, officials and service providers. Nor does it mean we should abdicate responsibility for our own actions.

In thinking about terror and other aspects of national security, we need to consider how increased citizen surveillance affects our trust in government institutions and their private sector proxies.

Respect for privacy – essentially freedom from inappropriate interference – is what differentiates liberal democratic states from totalitarian states and terrorist groups. That respect is a fundamental value. It requires trust by ordinary people and officials alike that government and their proxies will abide by the law, remain accountable and not mistake what is expedient for what is necessary.

That trust has been eroded in recent years by the national security philosophy endorsed by both Labor and the Coalition.

The view from the bunker

National security policymakers and operatives, along with many privacy analysts, have a bleak view of the world. We recognise that Australia spies on friendly and unfriendly countries alike. They spy on us. That’s a function of being a state. Non-state groups also seek to harm or gain advantages – that’s not new.

The challenge for legislators, courts and the wider community is to look outside that bunker and ensure any interference with privacy is minimal, rather than merely lawful. At the moment, we are not doing well. It is unsurprising that law-abiding people are emulating Malcolm Turnbull by embracing privacy tools such as Wickr and Snapchat.

Lawmaking in Australia over the past two decades has involved a step by step erosion of privacy. The scale of that erosion has not been acknowledged by bodies such as the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC), which consistently fails to rebuke bureaucratic opportunism.




Read more:
The new data retention law seriously invades our privacy – and it’s time we took action


The former Victorian Privacy Commissioner notably stood up to the premier and officials in his state, which is what we would expect from a privacy watchdog. Sadly, his willingness to speak truth to power was exceptional.

Protection against invasions of privacy has been progressively weakened in the name of “national security”. This can be seen in the removal of restrictions on the sharing of information by agencies, pervasive biometrics such as the government’s new facial recognition system and mandatory retention of telecommunications metadata. We see the militarised Home Affairs Department seeking to co-opt ASD – our most important spy agency – for warrantless access to the electronic communications of every Australian, rather than just ‘hostiles’ overseas.

Ongoing erosion cannot be justified. It has been persistently criticised by conservative bodies such as the Law Council of Australia and civil advocates such as the Australian Privacy Foundation.

Balances, not bullets

Privacy is not contrary to national security. It is a matter of balance, rather than an absolute.

Australian law (like that in the UK) has always allowed data collection, potentially on a mandatory basis – such as the Census. The law has always allowed overt or covert surveillance by officials, such as the undisclosed opening of mail or recording of conversations.

But such invasions must not be arbitrary. They must be restricted to those rare circumstances where disregard of privacy is imperative, rather than merely convenient. They must take place within a framework where there is some independent oversight to prevent abuse. Oversight fosters trust.

Such oversight might, in the first instance, consist of the requirement for a warrant, given our trust that courts will not rubber-stamp official abuses. It might involve systemic oversight by specialist bodies such as the Independent National Security Legislation Monitor (INSLM).

Asking the right questions

Australia does not have a discrete Bill of Rights under the national Constitution, although there have been cogent proposals from experts such as Bede Harris.

Privacy law is incoherent, with significant variation across states, territories and Commonwealth, and major holes in data privacy. Some states do not have a discrete Privacy Act, an absence that would be understandable in 1850, but is disquieting in 2018.

As a society, we expect officials will always do the right thing. Trust is fostered by laws that are necessary, transparent and properly implemented (for example, through the independent oversight noted above).

In thinking about these social objectives – more than just “winning” a conflict that may last across generations – we need to ask some hard questions about public and private responsibility.




Read more:
How the law allows governments to publish your private information


The first question we must ask, as citizens, is whether privacy – and law – is something that should always be sacrificed when there is a perceived threat to national security. We should acknowledge that not all threats are equally serious. We need informed public discussion about the need for and appropriateness of governments restricting use of private encryption tools and requiring that service providers offer law enforcement officials secret back doors into private communications.

Another question is whether officials should access private communications simply by asking service providers, without the discipline provided by a warrant. Can we tell if there have been abuses of our privacy? Watchdogs such as the OAIC and the INSLM need stronger protection from political pressure) and more resources, on the basis that an underfed and frightened watchdog is ineffective.

What’s more, we need to question to what extent we should trust governments and officials that are hostile to public disclosure. This hostility is exemplified by the Commonwealth Public Service Commissioner’s characterisation of FOI as “very pernicious” and the two years the OAIC spent in budgetary limbo, following efforts by the Abbott government to shut it down.

The ConversationThere are times when it is in everyone’s interests not to share secrets. That isn’t always the case, and we must ensure our governments, which exist to serve us, are accountable.

Bruce Baer Arnold, Assistant Professor, School of Law, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Malaysians celebrate the return of Mahathir and hope for a brighter future



File 20180510 34038 18tlmgh.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Mahathir Mohamad has said many times that he will hand over power to former enemy Anwar Ibrahim, if the latter can secure a royal pardon.
AAP/CrowdSpark/Aizat Ady Ikram Abdull Ropha

James Chin, University of Tasmania

When Malaysians woke up on May 10, the world looked and felt different. For the first time in years, many Malaysians feel a sense of optimism that was missing in their lives. For the past six decades, Malaysians have been living under the rule of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO).

UMNO had won every election since 1955. In the May 9 general elections, Najib Razak, UMNO’s leader and prime minister, was not only confident, he was telling close aides that he was aiming for two-thirds of the seats in the 222-seat parliament. By the time the final vote was counted, UMNO had only 79 seats and lost power.




Read more:
Mahathir Mohamad crops up again in bid to lead Malaysia – with Anwar on the same side


What happened? This will be the question preoccupying political scientists for years to come.

Suffice to say, Najib lost due to three main reasons.

First, his personal brand had become synonymous with kleptocracy. He was alleged to have received close to US$1 billion from a Malaysian sovereign fund via complex international transactions. It did not help that Najib’s wife, Rosman Mansor, was widely regarded as a spendthrift with a passion for diamonds and designer bags.

Second, Dr Mahathir Mohamad was no ordinary opponent. Mahathir was Malaysia’s longest-serving prime minister, from 1981 to 2003, and had come out of retirement to fight Najib.

Third, and perhaps most important, UMNO was simply seen as an organisation for political patronage, and a purveyor of racism and crony capitalism. It was no longer seen as a Malay nationalist party. In the past few decades, UMNO has been regarded as vehicle for making big money, government corruption and spreading hate towards the Chinese community in Malaysia.

The rural Malays, the mainstay of UMNO political power, could not stomach Najib’s toxic reputation as “Mr Kleptocrat”. They could see that under continued UMNO rule, their lives would be economically ruined. The GST brought in by the Najib administration was the last straw. Prices of basic necessities went up across the board despite Najib’s insistence that the GST would bring down prices.

There is tremendous goodwill towards Mahathir. Yes, he was dictatorial when he was prime minister the first time around. But most Malaysians I spoke to say this time it will be different. Mahathir is 92, and it is obvious he is a transitional leader.

He has said many times that once his jailed former deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, can get a royal pardon and a seat in parliament, he will hand over power to Anwar. Many Malaysians believe he will keep his word: after all, he cannot be going for re-election when he is 98.

Mahathir will also be constrained by the opposition’s organisational structure. His party, Pribumi Bersatu, has the third-smallest number of MPs of the four parties in Pakatan Harapan (PH) (Alliance of Hope). He is not in a position to bully.

Finally, what will happen to Najib Razak? Will he go to jail for 1MDB and the missing billions? In the short term, the answer is “no”. The new government will not immediately arrest Najib, or his wife. It will instead likely establish a committee to look into the 1MDB affair and get a definitive answer as to where the US$5billion disappeared to.




Read more:
Centre Alliance’s Rebekha Sharkie most vulnerable at byelections forced by dual citizenship saga


If the investigation panel shows Najib is behind the scam, then, yes, Najib will probably end up in jail. But this is a long process. It is more likely that any prosecution against Najib will start outside Malaysia.

Several governments, notably the US, are interested in sorting out the 1MBD issue. Thus far they could not complete their investigations because Najib used his position to stop Malaysian institutions from cooperating with the US Department of Justice probe into 1MDB.

The ConversationThere is a potential new angle to 1MDB, which is related to Australia. The bank account Najib used to launder 1MDB’s money is actually part-owned by ANZ Australia. Many believe some of the money from 1MDB passed through the Australian financial system.

James Chin, Director, Asia Institute Tasmania, University of Tasmania

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Mixed messages in post-budget Newspoll and Fairfax-Ipsos


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Labor continues to hold a 51-49% two-party lead in the wake of last week’s budget. However, Malcolm Turnbull’s advantage over Bill Shorten has surged in the Newspoll published in The Australian on Monday.

But the Ipsos poll, in Fairfax papers, has Labor ahead by a much wider 54-46% margin on a two-party basis – a rise of two points for the ALP since the last Ipsos poll in early April, with a corresponding fall for the Coalition.

Post-budget opinion will soon be tested on the ground in five byelections, four of them caused by the citizenship crisis.

The Western Australian Liberals have announced they will not run in the two contests in that state, while Pauline Hanson and opposition leader Bill Shorten are trading public blows over preferences for the Queensland seat of Longman, where One Nation preferences were crucial in Labor’s win last election.

In Newspoll, Turnbull has stretched his previous three-point lead over Bill Shorten as better PM to 14 points. Turnbull jumped eight points to 46%, while Shorten fell three points to 32% in the poll, done Thursday to Sunday.

Last week Shorten was embarrassed over his previous boasts that Labor had a strong citizenship vetting process, after the High Court on Wednesday disqualified Labor senator Katy Gallagher for having dual citizenship when she nominated for the 2016 election. The court decision prompted three Labor MPs and a crossbencher to resign.

Turnbull’s satisfaction rating has risen three points to 39% in Newspoll, while Shorten’s rating went down a point to 33%. The Coalition primary vote was up a point to 39%; Labor also rose a point to 38%, since the last poll, published three weeks ago. One Nation is on 6%, the Greens are 9%.

Newspoll found 41% thought the budget good for the economy; only 26% said it would be bad. People were split on its impact for them personally: 29% said they would be better off, 27% thought it would leave them worse off.

Just over half (51%) backed the government’s tax plan, the first stage of which would give a tax cut to lower and middle income earners.

The Labor primary vote in the Fairfax-Ipsos poll was 37% (up three points). The Coalition was unchanged on 36%.

In the Ipsos poll, taken Thursday to Saturday, 38% believed they would be personally better off as a result of the budget – the highest rating in perceived personal benefit since 2006 – while 25% said they would be worse off. On the measure of fairness, 39% believed the budget was fair, while 33% said it was unfair. Ipsos found 57% would prefer the government to use extra revenue to pay off debt; 37% would prefer it to be used for tax cuts.

Turnbull’s approval rating was 51% (up four points) in the Fairfax-Ipsos poll; his disapproval was 39% (down four points). Shorten was on 39% approval (up a point) and 51% disapproval (down two points) . As preferred prime minister, Turnbull was ahead 52% (unchanged) to Shorten’s 32% (up a point).

The timing of the byelections is yet to be announced – they are expected to be on the same Saturday. Four are in Labor seats; the fifth is in Mayo, held by the Centre Alliance’s Rebekha Sharkie – the Liberals are hoping to wrest the seat back.

Braddon in Tasmania and Longman will be the two government-opposition head-to-head battles.

In Longman, on less than 1% margin, a ReachTEL poll commissioned by the left-leaning think tank The Australia Institute found the government leading the ALP 53-47% in two-party terms. It had One Nation on 15.1%. The poll was done Thursday night, of 1277 people.

As it seeks a strong candidate for Longman, the Liberal National Party is bedevilled by the dual citizenship issue that has caused the byelection in the first place. The LNP is having to ensure, before it does its preselection, that no potential candidate is a dual citizen, which can go to complicated questions of eligibility for foreign citizenship through relatives.

Labor’s Susan Lamb, who won the seat in 2016, also must renounce her dual British citizenship in time for her renomination.

Shorten at the weekend delivered a sharp response to Hanson’s demand that Labor put the Greens last.

Hanson wrote to Shorten that:

With a looming byelection in the seat of Longman and a federal election likely within the next 12 months, One Nation and its supporters are seeking an assurance from you as Leader of the Australian Labor Party that you will guarantee placing the Greens at the bottom of all Labor how-to-vote cards.

Conservative Australians do not support parties who flow their preferences to the Greens and I cannot in good conscience flow One Nation preferences to Labor if their preferences relationship continues with the Greens.

Shorten wrote back:

I know you are under a lot of pressure following your decision to support the Prime Minister’s $80 billion tax handout to multinationals and the big banks. That’s the only explanation I can think of for your letter to me, in which you appear to be attempting to direct the preferences of Longman voters voters to the LNP.

Meanwhile a row has blown up over the preselection dumping of Queensland Liberal Jane Prentice, an assistant minister in the Turnbull government. She was beaten decisively in a rank and file ballot by a Brisbane city councillor, Julian Simmonds, a former staffer of hers. Her defeat has reignited the criticism of the Liberal party for having so few women in its parliamentary ranks.

The ConversationAsked about Prentice’s loss, Treasurer Scott Morrison told the ABC that politics was “a contestable process”. Prentice had “done a great job and we thank her for her service”.

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Who are the wealthy retirees targeted in Labor’s plans?


Roger Wilkins, University of Melbourne

In Labor’s budget reply speech, Bill Shorten reaffirmed the plan to remove refundability of dividend imputation credits. His pitch was to Australian voters on lower and middle incomes, in which he pledged to look after the country’s ageing population:

We know that giving older Australians the security and dignity they deserve matters more than an $80 billion corporate tax cut.

The issue of whether or not retirees should be able to get a refund in dividend imputation has sparked considerable discussion of retirees’ income and wealth.

The Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey shows that, overall, retired people tend to have lower incomes than the population as a whole, but higher wealth. This is because retirement typically involves ceasing employment and reducing income, while wealth tends to accumulate with age, at least up to the point of retirement, mainly due to paying off the mortgage and accumulating superannuation.

https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/L4l0L/2/

The different mix of income and wealth for retired and non-retired households means it’s not straightforward to compare their economic well-being. For example, the HILDA Survey data show that only 23% of retirees aged 60 and over have above-median incomes (compared with 50% of the population as a whole); but 62% have above-median household wealth.

That said, retirees are generally wealthy if they have both above-median household income and above-median household wealth. With this definition, 20% of retirees aged 60 and over are wealthy. This compares with approximately 28% of the Australian population as a whole.

What does retirement wealth look like?

Among retirees aged 60 and over, wealthy retirees are on average about two years younger than other retirees, having an average age of 71.8. Nearly 97% of wealthy retirees own their home, compared with 76% of other retirees.

These retirees have net wealth in 2014 (when wealth was last measured by the HILDA survey) averaging over A$2.4 million at today’s prices.

While wealthy retirees have high average holdings of superannuation, investment property and other investments, the home is still the most important component of their wealth. The home is also the most important asset for other retirees, but in 2014 it was worth an average of only A$400,000 (at today’s prices) for these retirees, compared with A$800,000 for wealthy retirees.

https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/ILAqJ/3/

Wealthy retirees get most of their income from superannuation and other investments, although government benefits (mostly the Age Pension) nonetheless average over A$11,000 per wealthy retired household. For other retirees, the Age Pension is the dominant income source, averaging A$24,000 per household.

https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/KNwU3/2/

The HILDA survey data indicates that both wealthy and other retirees on average pay little income tax – A$4,256 for wealthy retirees and only A$94 for other retirees. Indeed, less than 30% of wealthy retiree households, and only 5% of other retiree households, are estimated to actually pay any income tax.

Moreover, the data show that 42% of wealthy retirees, and 22% of other retirees, have negative income tax because of dividend imputation credits received on their holdings of Australian shares. This does not take into account taxes and imputation credits on dividends received by superannuation funds.

Given the tax-free status of superannuation in people’s “retirement phase” (albeit now only on the first A$1.6 million), it’s likely that more than 42% of wealthy retirees, and more than 22% of other retirees, effectively have negative income taxes.

The ConversationWhether you consider Labor’s plan good or bad policy, given its exemption of pensioners, it is clear that its impact will be most acutely felt by wealthy retirees.

Roger Wilkins, Professorial Research Fellow and Deputy Director (Research), HILDA Survey, Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Vital Signs: how inflation in China and the US could affect Australia


Richard Holden, UNSW

Vital Signs is a regular economic wrap from UNSW economics professor and Harvard PhD Richard Holden (@profholden). Vital Signs aims to contextualise weekly economic events and cut through the noise of the data affecting global economies.

This week: How the economies of China and the United States will affect what happens in our own.


Business conditions in Australia have been strong enough to see a surge in company tax revenue that led Treasurer Scott Morrison to outline cuts to personal income taxes over the next seven years in Tuesday’s federal budget.

Those same robust business conditions were reflected in the National Australia Bank Business Conditions Index which was up sharply in April to 21 points (up 6 points from the previous month). This puts it at the highest level in twenty years.

NAB chief economist Alan Oster said of the figures:

The record high in the April survey simply reinforces what has been evident since the middle of last year, that business activity in Australia is robust…I see the business survey as indicative as why the government appears to be rolling in corporate tax revenue.

In the United States, the Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey in March showed a surge of job openings – up 472,000 to 6.55 million. That was the highest reading on record. It also showed more workers voluntarily leaving jobs. This is generally regarded as strong sign of worker confidence and is indicative of looming wage inflation.

The US Producer Price Index rose just 0.1% in April according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, much lower than estimates of 0.3%, the level of growth in March. This put the index up 2.6% over the last 12 months, down from 3.0%.

This eased concerns about rising inflation that have been a major focus of discussions about interest rates at the Federal Open Market Committee at recent meetings. That could make the Fed less likely to raise rates quickly, though the tightening path still seems likely.

All eyes will be on the May 10, inflation statistics release to see if there is less heat than the Fed has seemed to fear, especially with unemployment now running at 3.9%.

Adding to this, China’s Producer Price Index dropped by 0.2% from February, putting the annual rate at 3.1%, the weakest level since October 2016.

Economists were looking for an annual increase of 3.2%, down from 3.7% in February. Because China is such a significant global exporter, the lower Producer Price Index should ease any inflationary pressures in other countries. In other words, China is exporting less inflation.

China’s Consumer Price Index actually fell 1.1% last month, putting the annual rate at positive 2.1%. Last month’s figures in part reflect the timing of Chinese New Year, so one shouldn’t read too much into them. On the other hand, any softening of the Chinese economy is a big deal for Australian exporters and our economy generally.

The coming months overseas will be very revealing. We will get a better handle on whether there are genuine inflationary pressures in the US – or whether perhaps there is a new normal. That will affect short-term interest rates, but also says something about where those rates are likely to move back to in the cycle.

We will also get a better fix on the Chinese economy, at least in terms of growth numbers. What still remains opaque is the health of China’s financial sector. That remains a significant concern.

Both the US and China will factor heavily into two key things in Australia. The first is, of course, the RBA’s interest rate decisions later this year. The second is the key number in the federal budget – the 3.0% real GDP growth assumption that underpins the forecast return to surplus and the rationale for the personal income tax plan.

The ConversationAt least for the next few months, what happens overseas will be more important for the Australian economy than domestic factors per se.

Richard Holden, Professor of Economics and PLuS Alliance Fellow, UNSW

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

For Timor-Leste, another election and hopes for an end to crippling deadlock


Jerry Courvisanos, Federation University Australia

For the last year, the people of Timor-Leste have expected – and received – little from their government except deadlock.

From a political standpoint, there’s been gridlock for nearly a year after the Fretilin party eked out a victory in parliamentary elections last July, kicking independence hero Xanana Gusmao’s National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT) party out of power for the first time in a decade.

However, Fretilin’s minority government found itself blocked at every turn by CNRT and its allies. It finally collapsed in December, forcing the beleaguered president to call for new elections, to be held on Saturday.

At the same time, there’s been economic deadlock, as well. The vast riches of the oil and gas fields in the Timor Sea have been locked away due to Timor-Leste’s seemingly intractable negotiations with the Australian government over a disputed maritime boundary.




Read more:
Australia should help East Timor feed itself


In March, a boundary treaty was finally signed between the countries, which could lead to billions in royalties for Timor-Leste. But disagreements remain on how to develop the untapped Greater Sunrise basin that lies across this boundary.

In the past, Timor-Leste governments have focused on a “big development” economic strategy to exploit the country’s limited fossil fuels, which José Ramos Horta, the Noble Peace Prize laureate and former president and prime minister, has called “an absolute necessity for the future well-being of this country”.

The recent political impasse has put serious discussions about the future of the country on hold. For starters, the tenor in the run-up to the election has been acrimonious and personal, with the leaders of each party trading insults and playing up their contributions to the war of independence against Indonesia instead of debating policy.

Candidates have focused their campaigns on voting for the best “fatherly” figure of the revolution, with little regard for the country’s youth, who suffer from high unemployment rates and have largely been marginalised from the political process.

The economic development of the country, meanwhile, has been left out of the debate. The candidates all stress the need for “big resource development” and the need to build massively expensive gas processing infrastructure on the south coast of the country. But what’s lacking is any indication of whether gas can (or will) be developed in the long term by any multinational gas producer.

Also lacking is any real discussion about the future of the economy and how best to wean the country off its reliance on fossil fuels to drive economic growth. This has long been seen as a risky and unsustainable strategy.

Based on my own research in the country, as well as the work of other academics and development experts, the new Timor-Leste government will need to take a different strategy more in line with the [United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals], encouraging private investment and developing non-oil exports in agriculture, community forestry and coffee exports. Timor-Leste has committed itself to these SDGs, even if it is struggling to meet them.




Read more:
From violent occupation to adventure vacation – can tourism work in Timor?


According to tradition, a sacred house in Timor-Leste is formed by four pillars. If two of those pillars are in a sloping position or broken, it will impact the house as a whole. When that happens, the elders will ask the young people to find new pillars to replace the ones that are damaged.

Timor-Leste now finds itself with two broken pillars – the leadership of the country and the dysfunctional parliament. The situation requires the attention of all Timorese to help fix the broken pillars and right the country.

The big question is whether the politicians who are elected on Saturday will listen to the people and bring an end to the deadlock holding the country back.

The ConversationI would like to acknowledge the contribution made to my article by Victor Soares, Lecturer in Public Policy, Universidade Nacional Timor Lorosa’e (UNTL), Dili

Jerry Courvisanos, Associate Professor of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Federation University Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.