State governments are vital for Australian democracy: here’s why



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State government remains an important part of the Australian political landscape.
Wes Mountain/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

Frank Bongiorno, Australian National University

As Victorians head to the polls in less than four weeks, there is a wider question worth considering than whether or not the Andrews government is likely to be given another term. Do state governments actually matter?

Imre Salusinszky, a former adviser to then- New South Wales premier Mike Baird, recently tweeted: “State government in 2018 is about running four or five businesses. The whole Westminster thing is preposterous. An efficient model would be a six-person executive guided by a People’s Convention meeting biennially for a month. Doesn’t need party politics and chocolate soldiers”.

That seems unlikely, but the idea that state governments have become too municipal to be taken seriously is familiar. For decades, federal politicians with a high opinion of themselves have treated the state government as beneath their notice or contempt.




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The exposure of the rorting and corruption of a number of state politicians – notoriously Eddie Obeid and Ian Macdonald during the most recent period of Labor government in New South Wales – has also fuelled a more general contempt for state politics. But the states at least have well-developed integrity systems that have landed a few crooks in prison. It would be mischievous as well as libellous to explore whether some of their federal counterparts have been cleaner or luckier.

The habit of treating state government as a poor relation might not be recent. Most of the big names in colonial politics headed straight into the Commonwealth parliament in 1901. Later, it is doubtful whether a federal politician would have ridiculed a Jack Lang or Ted Theodore – New South Wales and Queensland Labor premiers respectively – as dealers in triviality. But they, too, eventually headed for national politics.

With their eyes on the growing power and prestige of federal government as it acquired ever stronger control of national finances, historians have underestimated the continuing significance of the states in major policy areas. Land has always been a big one, as it is today in relation to housing affordability and urban development.

In earlier periods, closer settlement, soldier settlement and land taxation were all state matters. There is also mining. When he was Western Australian minister for industrial development in the 1960s, Charles Court was practically running an arm of Australia’s international policy in his negotiations with the Japanese over new iron-ore projects.

Large fields of activity remained predominantly state matters after federation – education, health and hospitals, public transport and roads, local government, and law and order. The capacity of the Commonwealth to act in a range of fields was either untested, or tested and found wanting.

In the area of social security, it was far from clear before the second world war that the Commonwealth would become predominant. The Commonwealth also left some fields to the states even where its authority to act was unquestioned – such as in marriage and divorce law before 1959-61.

For much of the twentieth century, most major public utilities, such as railways, were controlled by the states. Many became massive government bureaucracies and monopolies. On a smaller scale, Queensland had state-owned butcher shops and pubs.

In social, industrial and conservation policy, the New South Wales Labor governments of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s showed that caution was not inconsistent with policy innovation. Rather more adventurously, Don Dunstan’s South Australian Labor governments of the late 1960s and especially the 1970s, provided a blueprint for the social progressivism associated with the Whitlam revolution. Dick Hamer’s progressive Liberal government in Victoria complemented the Whitlam agenda.

South Australian premier Don Dunstan lead a socially progressive government associated with the Whitlam revolution.
The Centre of Democracy, South Australia

The 1980s revealed some of the limits for state governments in economic policy. The Victorian Cain Labor Government’s economic interventionism won the active dislike of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating. It ran up against the barrier of national economic policy and, eventually, political turmoil and financial scandal. Other governments were dogged either by corruption, as in the case of Western Australia and Queensland, or financial mismanagement, as in South Australia.

These results pushed the following generation of Labor leaders and governments towards notable caution and probity. By the mid-2000s, the credit ratings agencies were taking on the role of de facto third chamber of the state legislatures.

Still, the Bracks Labor government in Victoria sought to use its personnel and resources to influence the national policy debate. It contributed a National Innovation Agenda, which the Rudd Government took up as a starting point for its own efforts in that field.

The nature of the compact John Howard formulated to get his Goods and Services Tax up, which saw revenue going to the states according to an agreed formula, also provides premiers with a captive national audience whenever the issue of tax policy reform arises.




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Where does this leave state government today? In the first place, it shares with federal government control over areas that are among the most controversial and difficult for government. Energy policy is near the top of the list. And no one would regard Victoria’s new euthanasia law as anything other than a matter of high seriousness.

State government’s capacity for innovation and experimentation in fields that matter, and are not dependent on federal control of the purse-strings, remains alive. The Council of Australia Governments, or COAG, offers a forum in which such influence can be exercised. State governments in Victoria and South Australia have been pursuing the idea of a Treaty with Indigenous people, at a time when the issues of constitutional recognition, an Indigenous voice to parliament, and a Treaty or Makarrata have stalled at the national level. At the territory level, it was the ACT government that passed Australia’s first bill of rights law in 2004.

State governments provide Australians with choice and a government that, for most people, will be less physically and spiritually distant from their daily lives than Canberra. There are also the benefits of variety. For some years during the time John Howard was dominating the federal scene, every state and territory government was controlled by Labor.

Today, there is a more even division between the parties. It remains true, however, that in a time of disillusionment and distrust of politicians, state government provides electoral choice, checks on federal government power, and a large array of the services that Australians think of as peculiarly the province of government.The Conversation

Frank Bongiorno, Professor of History, ANU College of Arts and Social Sciences, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Privatising WestConnex is the biggest waste of public funds for corporate gain in Australian history



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Gladys Berejiklian’s government will pay for much of WestConnex construction, give away other toll roads, guarantee annual toll increases and force motorists to use the toll road.
AAP Image/Joel Carrett

Christopher Standen, University of Sydney

The NSW government has confirmed it will sell 51% of WestConnex — the nation’s biggest road infrastructure project — to a consortium led by Transurban, the nation’s biggest toll road corporation.

NSW treasurer Dominic Perrottet described the A$9.3 billion sale to one of his party’s more generous donors as a “very strong result”.

I would describe it differently: the biggest misuse of public funds for corporate gain in Australia’s history.

Let’s examine how much public funding has been or will be sunk into WestConnex, a 33km toll road linking western Sydney with southwestern Sydney via the inner west.

Privatising Westconnex will return the NSW government 30 cents for every dollar of public money spent.
WestConnex Business Case Executive Summary

To date, the NSW and federal governments have provided grants of about $6 billion. Much of this was raised through selling revenue-generating public assets, including NSW’s electricity network.

Hiding privatisation by stealth

As well, the NSW government is bundling three publicly owned motorways into the sale: the M4 (between Parramatta and Homebush), the M5 East and the M5 Southwest (from 2026). Together, Credit Suisse values these public assets at A$9.2 billion. The government is privatising them by stealth. Leaked NSW cabinet documents suggest the Sydney Harbour Bridge will be next.

Then there is the A$1.5 billion bill for property acquisitions and the millions spent on planning, advertising, consultants, lawyers and bankers.

The government is funding extra road works to help prop up WestConnex toll revenue. It will increase the capacity of road corridors feeding into the interchanges. But it will reduce the number of traffic lanes on roads competing with WestConnex, such as Parramatta Road.




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It will also pick up the bill for building a A$2.6 billion airport connection and the complex underground interchange at Rozelle. It will even pay compensation if the latter is not completed on schedule.

To further bolster toll revenue, NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian introduced a vehicle registration cashback scheme for toll-road users.

Her government has also committed to continuing the M5 Southwest toll cashback scheme. The cost of these incentives to the public purse is likely to exceed A$2 billion every ten years.

In total, I estimate the NSW government is pumping more than A$23 billion worth of cash, public assets, enabling works and incentives into WestConnex — though efforts to shield the scheme from public scrutiny mean the figure could be much higher.

Finally, as part of the deal with Transurban, the government has agreed to plough A$5.3 billion of the sale proceeds back into WestConnex. It’s recouping just A$4 billion by selling majority ownership.

This translates to a financial return of 34 cents for every dollar spent.

Government expenses and receipts.

Of course, governments don’t always spend our money with the intention of making a profit. Usually there are broader social benefits that justify the expenditure. However, past experience shows inner-city motorways do more harm than good — which is why many cities around the world are demolishing them.

Given its proximity to residential areas, WestConnex will have serious impacts on Sydney’s population. Construction is already destroying communities, harming people’s health and disrupting sleep and travel — with years more to come.

Motorists who cannot afford the new tolls on the M4 ($2,300 a year) and M5 East ($3,100 a year) will have to switch to congested suburban roads. This will mean longer journey times — especially with the removal of traffic lanes on Parramatta Road.

New tolls on existing motorways.

Those who do opt to pay the new tolls may enjoy faster journeys for a few years — until the motorways fill up again.

Costs outweigh the benefits

But this benefit will be largely cancelled out by the tolls they have to pay — with low-income households in western Sydney bearing much of the pain. As such, the ultimate beneficiary will be a corporation that pays no company tax and employs very few people.

Traffic and congestion on roads around the interchanges will increase significantly. Moreover, with tolls for trucks three times those for cars, we can expect to see them switching to suburban and residential streets — especially between peak hours and at night.

The extra traffic created by WestConnex will lead to more road trauma, traffic noise and air pollution across the Sydney metropolitan area. With unfiltered smokestacks being built next to homes and schools, more people may be at risk of heart disease, lung disease and cancer in years to come.




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On any measure, the WestConnex sale is not in the public interest. The billions of dollars ploughed into the scheme would have been better spent on worthwhile infrastructure or services that improve people’s lives.

Is the WestConnex acquisition a good deal for Transurban? A$9.3 billion may sound like a high price, given the past financial collapses of other Australian toll roads.

However, with the Berejiklian government agreeing to fund most of the remaining construction, giving away the M4 and M5, guaranteeing annual toll increases of at least 4%, and bending over backwards to force motorists under the toll gantries, it can only be described as a “very strong result” for the consortium, though not for taxpayers.The Conversation

Christopher Standen, Transport Analyst, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

UN delivers strong rebuke to Australian government on women’s rights



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The UN committee issued over 90 recommendations for improvement, demonstrating that negative aspects far outweigh progress on women’s rights.
Shutterstock

Maria Nawaz, UNSW and Tess Deegan, UNSW

This week, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women handed down its recommendations from its review of Australia’s compliance with the women’s rights treaty, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).

The UN delivered a scathing critique of Australia’s failures to protect and promote the rights of women and girls.




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The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women is a UN treaty body, made up of 23 independent experts from around the world, and its key functions include:

  • examining state parties’ implementation of rights under the convention

  • making recommendations detailing how state parties can improve compliance with the convention

  • accepting individual complaints about violations of rights under the convention

What did the committee say about Australia’s record on women’s rights?

The committee noted areas of improvement, including marriage equality, the introduction of the paid parental leave scheme and the prohibition of discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, gender identity, intersex status and family responsibilities.

However, it also issued over 90 recommendations for improvement, demonstrating that negative aspects far outweigh progress on women’s rights.

Human rights framework

The committee reiterated its 2010 recommendations that Australia should introduce a charter of rights. The Committee also recommended that Australia harmonise state, federal and territory discrimination laws to enhance their effectiveness in prohibiting discrimination against women.

The committee denounced funding cuts to the Australian Human Rights Commission, and emphasised the importance of the government respecting the independence of the commission.

Violence against women and sexual harassment

The committee noted the endemic nature of violence against women, with one in three women experiencing physical violence, and almost one in five women experiencing sexual violence. The committee recommended that the government reinforce efforts to change behaviours that lead to violence against women. This includes encouraging reporting violence, and adequately funding services under the National Action Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and Their Children.

The committee raised the prevalence of sexual harassment, and recommended that the government take into account the outcomes of the national inquiry into workplace sexual harassment, encourage reporting and impose appropriate sanctions on perpetrators.

Women’s economic disadvantage

The committee condemned the government’s lack of gender budget analysis. It said:

The Committee considers that some of the State party’s recent cuts to social, health, education and justice budgets, reduction of taxes for high income groups and increase of the defence budget represent a setback…

It recommended the government take immediate measures to mitigate the effect of recent budget cuts on women, implement gender-responsive budgeting in the allocation of public resources, and reinstate the funding of services catering to women’s rights.

Access to justice

The committee criticised funding cuts to legal assistance services, and urged the government to implement the recommendations of the 2014 Productivity Commission Inquiry into Access to Justice. This includes ensuring adequate funding for community legal centres and legal aid.

The committee raised concern at provisions in funding agreements that restrict the ability of community legal centres and civil society organisations to advocate for women’s rights, and recommended the government remove provisions from funding agreements that restrict freedom of expression.

Treatment of diverse groups of women

The committee recognised that diverse groups of women, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, LGBTI women, women with disability, women from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, refugee women and older women experience greater barriers to accessing and enforcing their rights.

These include discrimination, lack of access to appropriate services, higher risk of violence, higher unemployment and homelessness rates, and lower representation in public life. The committee recommended numerous measures to improve gender equality for diverse groups of women.

Where to from here?

The release of these recommendations comes at a time of great uncertainty in international human rights. We’re seeing a disturbing retreat from fundamental human rights principles and institutions across the world.

While Australia has been using its seat on the Human Rights Council to advocate at the international level for the rights of women and girls, the gap between our global leadership on gender equality and the reality faced by women and girls in the Australian community is stark.




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Australia has an extremely poor record of implementing treaty body recommendations. During the committee’s review of Australia last month, the Australian government, while stating that it takes its international obligations “incredibly seriously”, admitted that on most fronts it had no plans to amend laws or policies to improve protection of the rights of women and girls in the Australian community.

As part of the committee’s follow-up procedure, Australia must explain to the committee what steps it has taken to implement priority recommendations within two years.

The committee’s four priority recommendations focus on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, funding for women’s services, reproductive rights, and ending offshore processing of refugees.

The ConversationThe challenge for Australia is to engage positively with the committee’s recommendations and implement changes to improve human rights for women and girls at home

Maria Nawaz, Law Reform Solicitor/Clinical Legal Supervisor, Kingsford Legal Centre UNSW; Lecturer, UNSW Human Rights Clinic, UNSW and Tess Deegan, Law Reform Solicitor/Clinical Legal Supervisor at Kingsford Legal Centre, UNSW

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

Politicians, stop pitching to the ‘average’ Australian; being middle class depends on where you live


Liz Allen, Australian National University

Politicians are fond of pitching to the “average Australian” but judging by the income of Australians, whether you are middle class depends on where you live. And where we live tells a rich story of who we are as a nation – socially, culturally and economically.

Income is at the heart of access to services and opportunities, which are differing and unequal based on where you live.


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Our ability to afford housing that meets our needs largely determines where we live. In turn, where we live influences access to other important features of our lives which shape lifelong and intergenerational opportunities. For example, student performance is associated with everything from where a student lives to their parent’s occupation.

Household incomes in capital cities are typically among the highest, with incomes declining the further you live from major cities. So it’s understandable why Australians living outside or on the fringes of cities might feel somewhat left behind.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics presents “average” income as a range based on where you live. This range is marked by a lower number (30% of incomes) at the beginning and the higher number (80% of incomes) at the top.

This “average” income varies substantially between different rural areas from A$78,548 – A$163,265 in Forrest (ACT) to A$10,507 – A$26,431 in Thamarrurr (NT). This is actually an equivalised household income which factors in the economic resources like the number of people and their characteristics, between households.


https://cdn.theconversation.com/infographics/141/93a48c7a6422754d008e1ba640b69cebcc4270f5/site/index.html


The difference between the top and bottom of this range of “average” household income also shows greater inequality within areas.

Even within the greater Sydney metropolitan area, there’s significant differences in household income between areas. The average household equivalised income in Lavender Bay is around A$40,000 – A$95,000 higher than it is in Marayong.

The difference in income is marked, and there are other differences too. People in Marayong are on average younger than Lavender Bay. Family size is smaller in Lavender Bay. Over half of the Lavender Bay residents hold university degrees, compared to a more skill-based workforce in Marayong.

Why there is no one “average” Australian

Cities offer access to myriad employment options. Industries associated with relatively high incomes are typically concentrated in cities to take advantage of global connections.

Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra are notable standouts based on household income. So if you live close to these major cities you’d be getting the most opportunities in terms of employment and income, given the you’re the right candidate.

But not everyone wants to live in the centre of cities. Housing, lifestyle and neighbourhood preferences also play a role in where we live, but are still influenced by income and proximity to such things as employment and family and friends.

Also, infrastructure which supports social and economic wellbeing is essential in communities, regardless of where we live.

What politicians should be talking about instead

Improving the different and unequal access across areas requires better internet connectivity and advances in the way we work. Policies around housing and family-friendly workplaces go some way to supporting Australians in work.

Any measures to redress inequalities require understanding the needs and wants of communities. Proposed planning to reconfigure the greater city of Sydney around population and socioeconomic infrastructure offers an example of a data-driven approach to planning. Whether the proposed reconfiguration of Sydney leads to improvements or greater segmentation will be revealed in practice.

Politicians rarely reflect the characteristics of the people they represent, particularly when we consider the remuneration, entitlements and perks of political office. The longer politicians are in office, and somewhat removed from the people they represent, the further they potentially become from gauging their electorate.

Yet politicians profess to know what the average Australians they represent needs and wants. They apply this to a range of things from service delivery to representation on political matters. And this is within reason.

But without current experience we struggle to see things from perspectives other than our own. Take for example the way some have come to label themselves outsiders from the social and political elite to advance their credibility with average Australians.

The ConversationBringing politicians in touch with the diversity of needs and wants of Australians starts with a self-check and recognition of individual bias (conscious or unconscious). This is the first step toward really understanding and connecting with Australians – be it in the “average” or otherwise.

Liz Allen, Demographer, ANU Centre for Social Research and Methods, Australian National University

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

From Lord of the Rings to Crocodile Dundee – franchising Australian culture?



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AAP

Bruce Baer Arnold, University of Canberra

Are we going to see an Amazon or Apple remake of Crocodile Dundee, Blinky Bill, The Magic Pudding, The Castle or Picnic at Hanging Rock? Should we restrict overseas exploitation of such icons of Australian identity? Should we not bother, on the basis that Australian content doesn’t work in Mumbai or Belgrade or Boston?

This week has seen controversy over Amazon’s plan for a Lord of the Rings series, feeding what it hopes is an insatiable appetite for hobbits. It’s part of Amazon chief executive Steve Bezos’s ambition to offer a global one-stop shop for culture and other consumables. Amazon aims to be a universal service provider in a landscape where broadcast tv, cable tv and traditional retailers wither and die.

The plan tells us something about culture: it’s for sale. It also tells us about franchising content for global markets: media executives are risk-averse and unimaginative. It leaves unanswered questions about taking Australia’s content to the big screen (and importantly little screens) across the world.

Picnic at hanging rock is one of the most loved and iconic Australian films of its time – will it also be franchised out?
Flickr CC, CC BY

Recycling popular culture

Recycling popular culture, very profitably, isn’t new. We can see it with the many iterations of Batman and Superman videos, films, t-shirts, books, posters and toys since the original comics. We can see it with more than 160 years of remakes of Sweeney Todd. Think Frankenstein and Dracula or Godzilla or Sherlock Holmes.

There’s money to be made from recycling and authorised spinoffs, duly policed or contested by copyright and trade mark lawyers – the gatekeepers of the information economy.

On that basis, Amazon’s vision is unsurprising. Billion-dollar deals in recent decades have involved media groups buying comic publishers such as Marvel, on the basis that the publishers managed to get the vital intellectual property rights. Other big-ticket deals involve Peter Rabbit, Thomas the Tank Engine and Hercule Poirot. That means there’s yet another Murder on the Orient Express on the big screen, with big actors, big moustaches and – the producers hope – big box office.

Kenneth Branagh and Daisy Ridley star in Twentieth Century Fox’s remake of Murder on the Orient Express.
Flicker CC, CC BY

There’s nothing to stop such recycling and the proliferation of products such as Peter Rabbit or Darth Vader figurines, plates, lunchboxes, t-shirts and sheets apart from intellectual property rights. Rights owners are free to licence, gift or simply sell their creativity. Contention has usually centred on whether they sold too cheaply or unwisely – one claim with the Agatha Christie and Tolkien estates – or whether the value of the ‘brand’ was eroded through too many tasteless products.

On that basis we can expect to see an ongoing proliferation of products and a recycling of “classic” works ranging from Casablanca to The Empire Strikes Back. Marketers will respond to what they perceive to be market demand. Recycling will occur because the managers running the large media groups – which will increasingly include businesses such as Apple, Amazon and Microsoft – are risk averse. It is safer and easier to refashion existing content than develop truly new content.

Safety reflects a lack of imagination: your peers are making money by bringing comic book heroes to the big screen, so you can too. A global distribution system – one reason why the big companies remain important – means that you can sell other-worldly content across the globe. No worries that audiences in Karachi or Shandong or Harare or Melbourne will reject a tale about purdah or genocide in Bosnia or colonisation on the US frontier. Hobbits and R2D2 and Spiderman are universal.

Donald Pleasence starred in the Australian 1971 psychological thriller ‘Wake in Fright’
Flicker CC, CC BY

Protecting the ‘Australian identity’

Is this good news for Australian creators and for people who think about protecting the “Australian identity”? The answer is yes and no.

Australia doesn’t have law prohibiting sale to an overseas buyer of rights in iconic works such as Dot & the Kangaroo, The Muddleheaded Wombat, Possum Magic, The Magic Pudding, Johnno, The Man Who Loved Children or Wake in Fright. It doesn’t restrict licensing of those works. Despite the Prime Minister’s recent foray into populism about Ugg boots, it is difficult to see any government establishing credible restrictions.

The bad news is that overseas marketers appear to believe that Australian content doesn’t travel. We are accordingly an importer rather than a major exporter of literature and film. That is an issue in debate about copyright changes. It may reflect stereotypes – Nordic noir, English bluebloods, quirky New Zealand, Indian Bollywood, Australian deserts and men with dresses or Dundee knives.

The state governments have been enthusiastic about establishing Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne as “film cities”. Major overseas productions, including Thor and Pirates of the Caribbean, have used Australian infrastructure and skills. We haven’t however seen many distinctively ‘Australian’ works go global. Works such as The Slap have been refilmed with offshore settings and offshore accents.

Sassy koalas and talkative flying kangaroos might make a breakthrough into the the global market. We want that because it encourages emulation rather than just enriches the creator and creator’s estate.

The ConversationIf we are concerned about national cultural policy we might controversially put less taxpayer money into support of the local arms of overseas media groups, all of which pay very little tax, and instead foster local production and global distribution.

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

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

What should Australian companies be doing right now to protect our privacy


David Glance, University of Western Australia

Australians are increasingly concerned about how companies handle their personal data, especially online.

Faced with the increasing likelihood that this data will be compromised, either through cyber attacks or mishandling, companies are now being forced into a more comprehensive approach to collecting and protecting customers’ personal data. The question remains – what is the best approach to achieving this goal?

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has proposed that instead of talking about cybersecurity – companies, organisations and nations should be viewing the problem from a digital security risk management perspective.

Cybersecurity often overlooks risks to data that have nothing to do with a “cyber” element, even if people could agree on a definition of that term. In the case of Edward Snowden for example, he used a colleague’s credentials to access the system and copied files to a USB drive.

Digital security risk management involves getting everyone in an organisation to see digital risk as part of the overall risks that the organisation faces. The extent of risk any organisation is willing to take in any particular activity depends on the activities value. The aim is to manage the risk to a level that is acceptable to all parties.

What do you do about the weak link: humans?

It is worth remembering that in the case of the Equifax breach in which the personal details of up to 143 million customers in the US were leaked, it was largely human errors that were to blame.

Put simply, the person who was responsible for applying the patch (a piece of software designed to update a computer program or its supporting data, to fix or improve it) simply didn’t do their job. The software that was supposed to check whether the patch had been applied also failed to pick this up.

Until humans can be taken out of the equation entirely, it is almost impossible to remain entirely secure, or to avoid the inadvertent disclosure of personal and private information. Insider threat (as this type of risk is known) is difficult to combat and companies have tried various approaches to managing this risk including predictions based on psychological profiling of staff.

Automation and artificial intelligence may be a way of achieving this in the future. This works by minimising the amount of sensitive information staff have direct access to and surfacing only the analysis or interpretation of that data.

A litany of recent breaches

If you needed convincing about the vulnerability of personal data on the Internet, you only need look at Gemalto’s data breach website or DataBreaches.net.

The breaches of private and personal information don’t recognise national boundaries with hacks of companies like Yahoo having affected 3 billion users, including millions of Australians.

Of course, Australian companies and organisations have also been involved with spectacular data breaches. Last year saw the Australian Red Cross expose 555,000 customer records online.

Of more concern was the Australian Department of Health had published online what they believed were de-identified records of Medicare and pharmaceutical claims of more than 3 million patients. Researchers at the University of Melbourne discovered that the “encrypted” doctor provider numbers could be decrypted.

Are we looking at it in the wrong way?

Whilst there are practical steps companies can take to protect digital systems and data, there are more fundamental questions companies should be asking from a risk perspective. In order to navigate these questions, companies need to understand the data they collect and perhaps surprisingly, this is something most companies struggle to do.

The 13 Australian Privacy Principles from the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner outline the basics of how organisations and agencies should handle personal information. The practical application of these principles involves an approach called Privacy By Design for all applications and services companies offer.

Enter confidential computing

For CSIRO’s Data61, the answer to breaches of this sort is “confidential computing”. Data61 is tasked with data innovation and commercialisation of its research ideas. Confidential computing is the remit of Data61’s latest spin-off, N1 Analytics.

The main aspect of confidential computing involves keeping data encrypted at all times and using special techniques to be able to query data that is still encrypted and only decrypting the answer.

This can even allow others outside an organisation to query internal data directly or link to it with their own data without revealing the actual underlying data to either party.

Aside from the case of allowing the use of sensitive data in research, this approach would allow a company with financial information say, to share this data with an insurance company without handing over sensitive information but theoretically letting the insurance company carry out extensive data analytics.

What companies should do now to protect your data

As a starting point, Australian companies should only collect the minimum of personal information that the business actually needs. This means not collecting extra information simply for marketing purposes at some later date for example.

Companies then need to explain in simple, clear, terms why information is being collected, what it is being used for and get users to consent to giving that information.

Companies then need to secure the data that is collected. Security involves dedicated staff understanding the data that is kept by a company and taking responsibility for its physical security and for controlling who has access, when they have access and what form they can access the data.

The ConversationLastly, they need to understand and enact a risk management approach to all digital data. This means that this is part of the overall culture of the company for every employee.

David Glance, Director of UWA Centre for Software Practice, University of Western Australia

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

Tony Abbott: consider burqa ban in places ‘dedicated to Australian values’



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Tony Abbott said he was a reluctant banner but says the burqa is an affront to the Australian way of life.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The issue of the burqa has erupted in the Coalition, with Tony Abbott suggesting a ban should be considered in places “dedicated to Australian values”, and the Nationals set to debate a prohibition on “full-facial coverings”.

Abbott said he was “a reluctant banner”, but “on the other hand, this thing frankly is an affront to our way of life”, a “confronting” and “imprisoning” garment.

“I think it is worth considering whether there are some places that are dedicated to Australian values such as our courts, our parliaments, our schools – maybe we do need to think about whether this garment is appropriate to be worn in places that are dedicated to upholding Australian values,” he told 2GB.

Abbott was commenting on a motion for a ban that Nationals MP George Christensen will move when the party’s federal conference meets this weekend.

The Christensen motion, supported by his Dawson federal divisional council, calls on the government “to implement a ban on full-facial coverings in all government buildings and public spaces, excluding places of worship, where it assists with security and public safety”.

Christensen said the qualification about security was to make exceptions for face coverings that for example were part of an entertainment.

The motion puts Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce on the spot.

“One of the great things about our party is that any person and any branch can bring forward any motion,” Joyce said.

“That doesn’t necessarily mean it becomes policy. That’s a matter for the federal conference, and I’ll be watching and listening to the debate like any other delegate.” Pressed on his own opinion he told reporters: “You can turn up the conference and find out exactly what I believe”.

In the Senate on Wednesday Pauline Hanson launched a vitriolic attack on Attorney-General George Brandis over his criticism of her stunt last month when she wore a burqa into the chamber. In his emotional speech that drew a standing ovation from Labor and the Greens, Brandis said it was appalling for her to mock the religious garments of Muslims and told her “we will not be banning the burqa”.

Brandis’ speech has since had a mixed reception in Coalition circles. On the day, there was limited and hesitant applause from his own ranks.

In her attack on Brandis, Hanson invoked the Anzacs when she accused him of defending “the most recognised symbol of radical Islam”.

“Whether or not you agree with my decision to wear a burqa in parliament is not the real issue,” she said. “The real issue is that Australians want a debate on full-face coverings and they want a debate on the issues that the burqa raises.

“It is, after all, a sign of radical Islam, which threatens the true Australian way of life. What would our Anzacs say? They fought for our freedom and way of life. There is room for only one flag, one language, one loyalty and one law.

“Recently, the lives of precious Australians have been lost in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria to stop radical Islam. But, senator Brandis, you forgot those lives when you defended the most recognised symbol of radical Islam, the burqa,” she said.

“You have a right to a view on my decision to wear the burqa into the Senate, but it is arrogant, incorrect and ill-informed when you presume to speak for most Australians,” Hanson said.

She said that all Brandis’ colleagues had “remained seated and stunned while you strutted the Senate stage with your quivering lip”.

Christensen said he thought Brandis had “over-egged” his reaction to Hanson. He said there had been criticism of Brandis’s speech among Coalition MPs, and the standing ovation had been “from people with values that are antipathetic to ours”.

He said the burqa was not a religious requirement but a “a cultural practice that is based in the oppression of women”.

Christensen said his motion talked “not about the burqa and the niqab specifically but full-facial coverings, so this would even apply to violent people that we have seen in the past violent protesters on the far left and the far right … who put the balaclavas over their nose and mouths to disguise themselves”.

The ConversationA ReachTEL poll taken after Hanson’s stunt found majority support for banning the burqa.

https://www.podbean.com/media/player/qi46m-71c69c?from=site&skin=1&share=1&fonts=Helvetica&auto=0&download=0

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

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

Amazon poses a double threat to Australian retailers



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Amazon is a low-margin retailer sitting on other higher-margin businesses.
shutterstock

David Bond, University of Technology Sydney

E-commerce giant Amazon has struck a deal to acquire Whole Foods Market, an American supermarket chain with more than 400 stores. The move has put even more pressure on Australian retailers as Amazon sets up shop in Australia.

But the real threat to Australian retail lies in Amazon’s business model. It is a low-margin retailer that owns several other highly profitable and fast-growing businesses, such as cloud services. These other businesses can and do cross-subsidise its retail operations.

JB Hi-Fi and Harvey Norman have suggested they will compete with Amazon on price, but given the cost structure of Australian retailers this may not be possible.

Amazon is very lean

While Amazon is extremely large, it is very lean. In 2016 alone, Amazon sold US$94.7 billion of product globally. But the cost of buying (or manufacturing) these products was US$88.3 billion, leading to a gross profit of just US$6.4 billion.

This means the mark-up Amazon puts on its products is very small. For example, in 2016 Amazon’s gross profit margin (gross profit divided by sales revenue) was just 6.8%. JB Hi-Fi had a margin of 21.9%, Woolworths 26.8%, Wesfarmers 31.0%, Harvey Norman 31.4%, Myer 42.1% and Super Retail Group a whopping 43.4%.

But Australian retailers also face high operational costs (wages, advertising, marketing and leases). The two largest, Wesfarmers and Woolworths, both have operating expenses in excess of 24.0% of sales revenue, while Myer, Super Retail Group and Harvey Norman are all around 40.0%. JB Hi-Fi is an outlier at just 16.3%.

Another important measure to consider is the net profit margin. This shows what percentage of each dollar of sales the company ultimately earns after all costs (including tax) are factored in. Net margin is calculated by dividing net profit after tax by sales revenue.

The net profit margins for Australian retailers are, for the most part, quite low – around 2-3%. This means they don’t have much room to move on price. If they drop prices, many will become unprofitable. So even if Amazon doesn’t start a price war in Australia, its business model is such that prices will be extremely competitive.

Amazon has other businesses

Most Australian retailers are only retailers. Some of the larger groups, such as Myer and Wesfarmers, operate across a few industries. But they ultimately still earn nearly all their revenue from buying and then re-selling physical products.

Amazon, on the other hand, has a profitable and booming services business. Its “services sales” represents about US$41.3 billion in sales, or 30% of its revenue. This covers third-party seller fees (Amazon charges other companies for access to its marketplace and warehouses), Amazon Web Services (a fast-growing provider of cloud services), digital subscriptions, advertising services and co-branded credit card fees.

In its 2016 annual report, Amazon reported US$12.2 billion in revenue from Amazon Web Services alone. The scariest thing for Australian retailers is that this has increased four-fold since 2013, and is responsible for nearly 75% of Amazon’s operating profit.

Amazon, then, not only has a large, low-margin online retail offering, but is supported by a fast-growing, high-margin cloud service.

Finding new ways to compete

Most Australian retailers will need to look at other ways of saving costs if they are to remain competitive with Amazon. For example, Coles and Woolworths can put even more pressure on suppliers to reduce their costs. Coles has recently signalled that it will pursue this strategy. And all of our retailers can try to reduce the cost of leases, and shift or reduce staff.

The small margins of most Australian retailers mean reducing prices alone isn’t a viable long-term strategy, especially as Amazon Web Services gains steam and Amazon is profitable in other countries.

Not every retailer will come under the same pressure, though. In the short term at least, groceries are still likely to be purchased in stores. But the same can’t be said of clothing and electronics. This means Woolworths and Wesfarmers should not be as concerned as Myer, Super Retail Group and JB Hi-Fi.

The ConversationThe answer for retailers may be to look past price and compete on other aspects of the shopping experience, such as convenience or customer service. But only time will tell if that’s what the Australian public wants.

David Bond, Senior Lecturer, Accounting Discipline Group, University of Technology Sydney

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

Could you pass the proposed English test for Australian citizenship?



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English language tests will be used to decide Australian citizenship.
from shutterstock.com

Misty Adoniou, University of Canberra

The Australian government is proposing tough new English language competency requirements for those seeking Australian citizenship.

Alongside a test of Australian values, and proof of your integration into Australian society, you’ll need to prove you can read, write and speak English at a competent level

We’ve been here before

Question: What do these two excerpts have in common – besides their clumsy sentence structure?

  1. If the land is ploughed when wet the furrows may, and in all probability will, wear a more finished appearance, and will be more pleasant to the eye, but land so ploughed will be more inclined to become set or baked, and when in this state will not produce a maximum yield.

  2. By carefully preplanning projects, implementing pollution control measures, monitoring the effects of mining and rehabilitating mined areas, the coal industry minimises the impact on the neighbouring community, the immediate environment and long-term land capability.

Answer: They are both language tests used to decide Australian citizenship.

The first is a 50 word dictation test that was key to the White Australia Policy. It was used to keep non-Europeans out of Australia.

Even if you passed the test in English, the immigration officer had the right to test you again in another European language. It was used from 1901 until 1958.

The second one is 50 words from a 1000 word reading comprehension exam with 40 questions that you must complete in 60 minutes.

This test is key to Australia’s proposed new Citizenship test. You must also write two essays, do a 30 minute listening test and a 15 minute speaking exam. If it passes through Parliament this week, it will be used from 2017.

Aspiring Australian citizens will need to score a Band 6 on the general stream of the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) test, the same score as those seeking entry to Australia’s top university.

So, could you pass the test?

The reading test

You have 60 minutes to read at least four texts taken from magazines, newspapers or training manuals, and answer 40 comprehension questions. Your short answer responses are also assessed for grammar and spelling. Here is an excerpt from a piece about bee behaviour.

The direction of the sun is represented by the top of the hive wall. If she runs straight up, this means that the feeding place is in the same direction as the sun. However, if, for example, the feeding place is 40 degrees to the left of the sun, then the dancer would run 40 degrees to the left of the vertical line.

Try the test for yourself.

The writing test

You have 60 minutes to complete two writing tasks. For example,

Write a letter to the accommodation officer complaining about your room mate and asking for a new room.

You are marked on the length of your response, its cohesion, vocabulary and grammar.

To give you something to gauge yourself by, this one didn’t achieve the required score of 6. It begins,

Dear Sir/Madam, I am writing to express my dissatisfaction with my room-mate. As you know we share one room, I can not study in the room at all any more if I still stay there.

As Senator Penny Wong observed about the test,

“Frankly if English grammar is the test there might be a few members of parliament who might struggle.”

Currently our national school test results from NAPLAN show that 15.3% of Year 9 students are below benchmark in writing. This means they would not achieve a Band 6 on the IELTS test.

A fair test?

I prepared students for the IELTS test when I lived and taught in Greece. They needed a score of 6 to get into Foundation courses in British universities. It wasn’t an easy test and sometimes it took them more than one try to succeed.

My students were middle class, living comfortably at home with mum and dad. They had been to school all their lives and were highly competent readers and writers in their mother tongue of Greek.

They had been learning English at school since Grade 4, and doing private English tuition after school for even longer. Essentially they had been preparing for their IELTS test for at least 8 years.

They were not 40-year-old women whose lives as refugees has meant they have never been to school, and cannot read and write in their mother tongue.

Neither were they adjusting to a new culture, trying to find affordable accommodation and a job while simultaneously dealing with post-traumatic stress and the challenge of settling their teenage children into a brand new world.

Learning a language takes time

Even if we conclude that tests about dancing bees and recalcitrant room-mates are fit for the purpose of assessing worthiness for citizenship – and that is surely very debatable – we must acknowledge that it is going to take a very long time for our most vulnerable aspiring citizens to reach a proficiency that will enable them to pass the test.

Currently we offer them 510 hours of free English tuition. That is at least 5 years short of what the research says is required to reach English language competency.

Testing English doesn’t teach it

The three ingredients of successful language learning are motivation, opportunity and good tuition.

The Australian government must address all three if it wishes to increase the English language proficiency of its citizens.

An English language test may appear to be a compelling motivation to learn the language, but without the opportunity to learn and excellent tuition over time, the test is not a motivation. It is an unfair barrier to anyone for whom English is not their mother tongue.

The ConversationAnd then this new policy starts to look and feel like Australia’s old White Australia Policy.

Misty Adoniou, Associate Professor in Language, Literacy and TESL, University of Canberra

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

Regulator failing to resolve complaints on alleged human rights abuses by Australian companies


Shelley Marshall, RMIT University

The Australian National Contact Point (ANCP) was set up as part of Australia’s membership of the OECD to hear complaints on the way Australian corporations operate overseas, but research shows it’s poorly resourced and rejects most claims at the initial assessment stage, raising concerns about its effectiveness.

There are National Contact Points already operating in OECD countries, that are achieving more with their mandate to promote Australian businesses respecting human rights while operating or based in other countries.

Australia does not have a legal framework that specifically regulates the human rights obligations of Australian corporations overseas. The Australian government is missing a vital opportunity to promote sound and ethical business practice and mediate disputes before they blow up, by inadequately resourcing this important human rights body.

Why is the ANCP needed?

Australian companies now operate all around the world in mining, manufacturing, finance and other industries. Sometimes this is through wholly owned subsidiaries, sometimes they invest in joint ventures or part shares, and at other times Australian businesses procure parts through supply chains.

When their activities negatively impact communities overseas, those affected should be able to go to the ANCP to hear their complaints. Though, in principle, communities can take their claims to local police and courts, in many countries corruption, bias and long waits often make remedy through legal avenues impossible.

Company structures also sometimes render it difficult to hold the parent company or a lead company in a supply chain responsible, even though that business may be calling the shots.

As the Australian government adheres to the OECD’s guidelines for multinational enterprises, it’s required to have a National Contact Point to assist corporations in observing these guidelines. Part of this includes providing a platform for mediation and conciliation.

Though its findings may not be legally enforceable, the ANCP is particularly important because it’s the only avenue for redress for many communities and individuals affected by Australian business, outside our national borders.

Properly resourcing the National Contact Point would allow the government to better fulfil its obligations under the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs).

Findings by other National Contact Points, when it comes to breaches of the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, have been highly influential in other countries. For example, the UK NCP determined that mining company Vedanta Resources had breached human rights guidelines regarding its planned mine in India.

It found the mine would displace thousands of tribal people. This finding resulted in high profile divestments from the company by a number of shareholders and the adoption of a new corporate social responsibility approach by the company. Interviews with shareholders that divested revealed that although the determination was not legal in nature, it was seen to have heightened authority because it came from the UK government.

How the ANCP is failing

The research on Australia’s NCP is part of a larger project that conducted 587 interviews with 1,100 individuals mainly in Australia, the UK, India and Indonesia. It assessed the performance of the ANCP based on an analysis of every claim that has been lodged with the body.

It found that the ANCP has all but abdicated its workload; it rejected or transferred (to another NCP) two thirds of all complaints made. With only one exception, the remainder of accepted complaints were closed without resolution, as the ANCP was unable to bring the parties to mediation and unwilling to issue a determination against the company the subject of complaint.

In the more than ten years since its establishment, the ANCP is yet to make a single determination against a company the subject of complaint.

In my meetings with Treasury, the department confirmed that until recently, one public servant was tasked with running the ANCP, who already had a full-time load of other work. Treasury also disclosed this single staff member, with no expertise in the area, was expected to deal with complex human rights complaints involving some of Australia’s biggest companies, around their primary role, with no dedicated budget.

To provide a point of comparison, the Dutch NCPhas two full-time staff, as well as other staff who have responsibilities to the NCP as part of their other duties, and receives an additional €900,000 over three years to promote corporate ethics. It is advised by four independent members and four advisory members from the government departments most relevant to business and human rights. Australia’s NCP receives no such independent advice.

The cases brought to the ANCP include a complaint regarding ANZ’s alleged financing of logging in Papua New Guinea and alleged forced evictions at a coal mine in Colombia jointly owned by BHP Billiton.

What needs to change

There are several ways the ANCP can improve its functioning and provide access to remedy. Top amongst these are: improving the independence of the ANCP and properly resourcing it, improving the process for handling complaints and increasing transparency.

If there was ever a time that the much neglected ANCP has a chance of being reformed, it is now. Australia is making a bid for a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council this year.

The ConversationModern slavery – especially the extent to which it taints the supply chains of Australian businesses and businesses operating in Australia – is the subject of a parliamentary inquiry and national attention. Hopefully this important human rights mechanism gets the attention it deserves.

Shelley Marshall, Vice Chancellor’s Senior Research Fellow, expert in corporate accountability, RMIT University

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