Grenfell Tower fire exposes the injustice of disasters


Jason von Meding, University of Newcastle; Giuseppe Forino, University of Newcastle; J.C. Gaillard, and Ksenia Chmutina, Loughborough University

Decades of gentrification in London and other European cities (including Paris, Barcelona, Rome and Istanbul) have enacted a form of social cleansing. This has pushed away low-income and marginal residents, divided the rich from the poor, and generated inequalities among citizens.

The Hammersmith area, where the Grenfell Tower is located, has been gentrified. This previously working-class area has been transformed into a vibrant middle-class neighbourhood. Just a few residential social housing tower blocks remain.

As a cosmetic measure, the Grenfell Tower was refurbished in 2014. The choice of cladding material that appeared to fuel the fire is now subject to scrutiny, but with no understanding of the social dimensions of the building’s design regulation and safety measures.

Repeated warnings from the Grenfell Tower residents that this was a disaster waiting to happen were ignored.


Grenfell Action Group

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There has been an outpouring of grief and anger from the affected community and beyond and tensions remain high. While certain elements of the media rebuke those seeking to hold the ruling class accountable, it is important to emphasise a simple truth: disasters are socially – and politically – constructed.

Root causes of disaster

Disasters are often misunderstood as “natural”, or simply assumed to be extreme and tragic events.

This view draws on a century-old paradigm that puts the blame on rare and inescapable natural phenomena, an “act of God”, or technological breakdowns that lie beyond the everyday social fabric.

But there is nothing natural about disasters; disasters usually have root causes of vulnerability that we don’t speak about and that reflect the day-to-day make-up of society – inequality, poverty, political ideology, class and power relations.

These root causes are similar in London, New York, New Orleans, Port-au-Prince and Manila – a few of the world’s cities that have been stricken by major disasters in recent times.

The Grenfell Action Group couldn’t have been clearer in its warnings of disaster – this one is from November 2016.
Grenfell Action Group

Disasters as experienced today are often rooted in the historical development of societies. The impacts of colonialism, slavery, military conquest and discrimination based on class, gender, race and religion are visible today.

Billions of people around the world, in both wealthy and less affluent countries, are at this moment suffering under structural injustices. As demonstrated at Grenfell Tower, this is a recipe for disaster.

Structural injustice creates vulnerability

This disaster is quite a shock to British society. Although the contributing sociopolitical drivers (while sometimes not explicitly discussed) are perhaps more visible on this occasion, having struck a centre of wealth and power in London, we need to recognise that injustice lies at the core of almost all disasters.

At the Grenfell Tower and around the world, the poor and the marginalised suffer the most from disasters.

This injustice is not an accident – it is by design. There is no disaster that kills everyone in a particular locality nor one that knocks down all buildings in a single place.

Normally the resources to overcome the impact of natural hazards are available locally. The privileged have access to these resources while those at the margin do not.

Vulnerability to hazards, and related disasters, therefore mirrors how power and resources are unequally shared within societies. More often than not disasters affect people not because of a lack of knowledge about disasters, but because this knowledge is not applied.

Political decisions also put lives at risk. MP Chi Onwurah summarised appropriately when she wrote:

The residents of Grenfell were poor in a rich neighbourhood. They were those the market rejected, a burden on a borough apparently determined the rich should not pay to lift the constraints of the poor.

The British political class has failed to adequately represent the interests of its most vulnerable citizens for decades. That people are consigned to live in such conditions in a wealthy country is at best a betrayal of the vulnerable by the state. Some would call it criminal. It is not only the Tories who must swallow this bitter pill.

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Cities are battlegrounds

Cities tend to greatly magnify inequality. The Grenfell Tower disaster is a product of a deep societal divide in Britain, where wealth is increasingly concentrated among a small minority.

Gentrification is pushing already marginalised people out of sight and out of mind. This kind of urban development is a boon for housing market profiteers and supports the ruling class agenda, but neglects the needs of the most needy in society. Marginal people become resourceless, invisible to public policies, and disempowered in public life. This increases their vulnerability.

If cities are to reduce the risk of disasters like the Grenfell fire, we must focus on social justice in urban development. The benefits of development or redevelopment should prioritise the have-nots and provide dignity to people regardless of income or background. Cities that are able to provide opportunities for all citizens are also able to appreciate diversity rather than homogenisation.

The ConversationThe Grenfell Tower fire exposes the injustice of disaster, and this terrible moment must be learned from and acted upon. Pushing people to the margins and deeming them worthless is ultimately what causes them to perish.

Jason von Meding, Senior Lecturer in Disaster Risk Reduction, University of Newcastle; Giuseppe Forino, PhD Candidate in Disaster Management, University of Newcastle; J.C. Gaillard, Associate Professor, School of Environment, and Ksenia Chmutina, Lecturer in Sustainable and Resilient Urbanism, Loughborough University

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

Newspoll steady at 53-47 to Labor. Macron’s party wins French lower house elections


Adrian Beaumont, University of Melbourne

This week’s Newspoll, conducted Thursday to Sunday from a sample of 1790, has Labor leading by 53-47, unchanged since the last Newspoll, three weeks ago. Primary votes are 37% Labor (up 1), 36% Coalition (steady), 11% One Nation (up 2) and 9% Greens (down 1).

32% were satisfied with Turnbull’s performance (down 3), and 55% were dissatisfied (up 1), for a net approval of -23. After creeping above a net -20 rating in the last Newspoll, Turnbull has slid back. Shorten’s net approval was also -23, down three points.

The 2-point lift in One Nation support is probably due to the many headlines about terrorism in the last few weeks. While there has been bad publicity about One Nation’s expenses, One Nation voters are likely to regard this as a media conspiracy to “get” One Nation, and be undeterred.

Since Donald Trump’s election, far right parties in Europe, and at the WA election, have slumped in the closing weeks of election campaigns, and then underperformed their polls on election day. There is no reason to think that a similar pattern will not apply at the next Federal election.

Some have argued that the UK election resembles the Australian 2016 election. As Kevin Bonham says, this is not true. The UK election was held three years early, while the Australian election was held two months early. Furthermore, the Australian election was held early in an attempt to make the Senate more compliant, while the UK election was held solely to attempt to increase the Conservatives’ Commons majority, and this was a dismal failure.

UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn succeeded by enthusing the youth vote. With compulsory voting in Australia and full preferential voting required, parties do not need to encourage their supporters to vote. While many on the left would prefer Tanya Plibersek as Labor leader, they will still preference a Labor party led by Shorten higher than the Coalition.

Similarly, many on the right would prefer a PM more right-wing than Turnbull, but they will still prefer the Coalition to Labor.

UK election aftermath

At the UK general election held on 8 June, the Conservatives lost their majority, winning 318 of the 650 seats, 8 short of an outright majority. The Northern Ireland (NI) Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) won 10 seats. As the DUP is very socially conservative and Corbyn has connections to the IRA, they will support the Conservatives.

All other parties represented at Westminster are to the left of the Conservatives. With the Speaker, John Bercow, omitted from the Conservative total, the Conservatives and DUP would have a wafer-thin majority of 327-322.

However Sinn Féin, which won seven seats in NI, will not take its Westminster seats, owing to historical opposition to British rule of NI. Unless this policy changes, the Conservatives and DUP will have a more comfortable 327-315 majority.

Owing to her loss of authority, PM Theresa May’s YouGov ratings have slumped since the election, while Corbyn’s have surged. This graph shows the net favourable ratings of May, Corbyn, the Conservaitves and Labour before the election campaign, near the end of the campaign, and now.

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According to YouGov, just 8% had a favourable opinion of the DUP, while 48% had an unfavourable opinion. Association with the DUP could taint the Conservative brand.

Division within the Conservatives is likely over Brexit. Had the Conservatives won the expected thumping majority, May would have a mandate for a “hard” Brexit. As it is, Conservatives who favour a “soft” Brexit are pushing back.

Macron’s party easily wins French lower house elections

Elections for the French lower house were completed in yesterday’s second round vote. President Emmanuel Macron’s new party, La République En Marche! (REM), won 308 of the 577 seats, and its ally, the Democratic Movement, won another 42 seats. The centre right parties won 137 seats, the centre left 44, the hard left Unsubmissive France 17, the Communists 10 and the far right National Front 8. Turnout was just 42.6% of registered voters, and only 38.4% cast a valid vote.

At the 2012 lower house elections, the centre left had won 331 of the 577 seats, the centre right 229, the Left Front 10, the National Front and the Democratic Movement 2 each. In 2017, Macron’s centrist movement made huge gains at the expense of both the right and left, with far right and left parties also gaining seats.

In the first round held on 11 June, the REM and Democratic Movement won 32.3% of the vote, the centre right 21.6%, the centre left 9.5%, the National Front 13.2%, Unsubmissive France 11.0% and the Greens 4.3%. Unless a candidate won a first round vote majority, the top two candidates in each seat proceeded to the second round.

The ConversationCandidates other than the top two who received at least 12.5% of registered voters also qualified for the second round. However, turnout of only 48.7% meant that just one seat was contested by more than two candidates in the second round.

Adrian Beaumont, Honorary Associate, School of Mathematics and Statistics, University of Melbourne

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.
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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.

Mixed media: how Australia’s newspapers became locked in a war of left versus right



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The Australian media’s lack of diversity puts significant strain on our democracy.
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Denis Muller, University of Melbourne

We are living through a period of fragmentation and polarisation in public discourse on a scale mankind has not before experienced. By far the greatest fragmenting and polarising force is social media.

An increasing proportion of the population, especially those under 40, get their news from social media, overwhelmingly from Facebook. The algorithms that tailor what Facebook prioritises for each individual allow users to choose only those topics or opinions that they want to hear. This has led to the formation of echo chambers or information cocoons.

So we have the paradox of the internet: the technology that provides a global village square also provides the means by which people in the square can block their ears and shut their eyes to things they don’t want to hear or see.

This places great strain on democracy. In the words of William Butler Yeats, things fall apart, the centre cannot hold.

In Australia, the effects of this phenomenon are made worse by the increased polarisation of the country’s two main newspaper companies, News Corporation and Fairfax Media.

Australia has very little diversity in its traditional media sector, especially its newspapers. News Corp controls roughly 70% of daily circulation and Fairfax roughly 20%. And for all their cutbacks in journalistic capacity, it is still the newspapers that inject the most new material into the 24/7 news cycle.

So when these two companies become polarised to the extent they have, there is a void at the centre. Notably, this is where The Guardian Australia has positioned itself (in reporting, at least – its opinions still lean to the left).

Sharp differences in political outlook among newspapers are nothing new, of course.

In Melbourne, The Argus was conservative, the paper of the squattocracy and the merchant class. It opposed land reform and favoured free trade, while The Age was progressive, supportive of the miners at Eureka, in favour of land reform and a crusader for protectionist trade policy.

In Sydney, The Sydney Morning Herald was profoundly conservative. The paper was opposed to democracy (which it called mobocracy) and supportive of a property franchise for the New South Wales Parliament. By contrast, The Empire, founded and edited by Henry Parkes, was guided by the principle that, in a colonial society, the working classes were the nucleus and makers of a democratic nation.

So there has never been a golden age when newspapers were heroically detached from interests and ideologies.

However, in the post-war period, the ideal of impartiality in news coverage gained a strong hold on the journalistic mind. American newspapers were the exemplars of this ideal. They were heavily influenced by the 1947 report of the US Commission on the Freedom of the Press, which had been set up to try to rebuild public confidence in the media after a period of corrosive sensationalism and propagandising in the early 20th century.

Appointed and paid for by the media itself, the commission consisted of intelligent and high-minded people from the media, government and academia. Its intellectual leader was a Harvard philosopher, William Ernest Hocking.

The commission’s report laid a solemn duty on the media to render a reliable account of the events of the day: factual, impartial and accurate. Comment was to play no part in news reporting, and was to be confined to pages set aside for it.

Generations of journalists in Western democracies – including me – were trained in this ideal.

Over time, however, it reduced news stories to a desiccated collection of unexplained facts, devoid of context and analysis. And anyway, the idea of a completely impartial and detached reporter came to be seen as fanciful, not to say fraudulent.

Gradually, news stories became more analytical, which introduced an overt element of subjectivity. Comment began to infiltrate news pages, so that now we have reached a point where news reportage, analysis and comment are commonly woven together.

Alongside these developments, ideological fissures were opening up in Australian society. The period of post-war social unity around a white Australia, opposition to communism, and other components of the Australian Settlement, such as wage arbitration and industry protection, began to crack.

Newspaper ownership also became more concentrated. In 1983, the Syme family sold The Age to Fairfax. In 1987, changes to media ownership laws introduced by Paul Keating enabled Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp to swallow up the huge but ailing Herald and Weekly Times.

Meanwhile, in Britain, Murdoch was getting a taste of what it was like to wield power over governments. Margaret Thatcher in particular was in thrall to him, as scholars such as David McKnight and Rod Tiffen have shown in their biographies of Murdoch.

His stable of newspapers in Britain included populist tabloids appealing to conservative blue-collar voters and influential broadsheets such as The Times and Sunday Times. These became increasingly conservative under his control, as the distinguished editor of those papers, Harold Evans, pointed out in his memoirs.

It seems Murdoch wanted to replicate this model in Australia. He had already started out with populist tabloids, yet his national broadsheet, The Australian, had begun life in 1964 as a vibrant small-l liberal newspaper.

However, as Murdoch’s vehicle for exerting influence on policymakers, it became increasingly conservative. By 1975 it had become so biased to the right in its political coverage that its own journalists went on strike in protest.

Murdoch makes no bones about his right to control what goes in his papers, and his editorial staff have to accommodate themselves to this – or exercise the privilege of resignation.

At Fairfax, the internal culture has been entirely different. In 1988, journalists at The Age persuaded Fairfax management to sign a charter of editorial independence guaranteeing no improper interference in editorial decision-making. Over the following three or four years, the company’s other titles adopted this charter.

These contrasting cultures are reflected in the editorial values of the companies’ newspapers. As the News Corp papers have become more stridently conservative, the Fairfax journalists seem to have taken it on themselves to provide at least some ideological counterweight.

It can be seen any day in the choice of stories given prominence and in the contrasting angles taken on political stories.

A good example was the treatment given to the controversy last year and early this year over the Australian Human Rights Commission. The Australian was campaigning vigorously to have the commission president, Professor Gillian Triggs, removed. The Fairfax newspapers focused on sustaining her position, particularly in respect of refugees and asylum seekers.

Similarly, with climate change, deniers get a prominence in News Corp papers that they never get in Fairfax.

This polarisation also reflects the deep divisions in the composition of the federal parliament, which in turn reflect deep divisions in the community over issues such as climate change and asylum seekers.

The fragmentation of political discourse brought about by social media only serves to heighten these divisions.

The ConversationIn these circumstances, the body politic would benefit from a renewed commitment by journalists to the qualities that underpinned the ideal of impartiality: accuracy, fairness, open-mindedness and above all balance, which follows the weight of evidence, not the bias of ideology.

Denis Muller, Senior Research Fellow in the Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne

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

A national amnesty will not rid Australia of violent gun crime



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Michael Keenan claims an amnesty will help get illegal guns off Australian streets.
AAP/Caroline Schelle

Samara McPhedran, Griffith University

After 18 months of false starts, Australia is about to hold another gun amnesty for three months from July 1.

Last week, Justice Minister Michael Keenan claimed the amnesty would take illegal guns off Australian streets. He went on to link the amnesty with terrorism, citing the Lindt Cafe siege and the murder of Curtis Cheng as examples.

In a time when the spectre of terrorism is increasingly used as both a shield to prevent scrutiny of policies and a sword to attack anybody who criticises government decisions, we would do well not to accept at face value Keenan’s claims. So, are gun amnesties an effective way of tackling serious criminal activity?

What is an ‘illegal gun’?

To legally own a firearm in Australia, you must have a licence.

Since 1996, all firearms must be registered. Unregistered firearms are illegal.

Anyone who possesses a firearm without holding a licence, or without the appropriate category of licence for that firearm, is in illegal possession.

“Illegal guns” occur in many different situations. These range from licence holders who may have registered some – but not all – of their firearms after that requirement was introduced, to people whose licence has expired but who still have registered guns, to people who would never be able to obtain a firearm licence but nevertheless possess prohibited firearms.

How will the amnesty work?

Each state and territory is responsible for its own amnesty. It is likely they will look similar to the many amnesties that have run around Australia on a periodic – and sometimes permanent – basis in the last 20 years.

There has been no modelling of how many firearms are likely to be handed in, and the numbers collected under past amnesties vary greatly. Unlike 1996, there will be no government-funded compensation scheme.

Although guesstimates abound, there is no way of knowing how many illegally owned firearms exist. There are no accurate records of how many firearms were in Australia before gun laws changed in 1996.

Even though there are figures for the number of guns handed in under previous amnesties, we cannot say what that translates to as a percentage of the total pool of illegal firearms.

We also have no knowledge about how many guns flow into the black market through means such as illegal manufacture or illegal importation.

Do amnesties reduce gun crime?

Despite talking up the amnesty, Keenan also said it is:

… probably not going to be the case [that] we would have hardened criminals who have made a big effort to get a hand on illegal guns [who] would necessarily be handing them in.

This explains why gun amnesties are not a particularly effective response to firearm crime. Australian and international evidence suggests the people who respond to amnesties are characteristically “low risk”: they are not the ones likely to be involved in violence.

It may sound clichéd to say that “high risk” people do not hand in their guns, but it also appears to be correct.

What about organised crime and terrorism?

Illegal firearms are found in a range of criminal activities, including organised crime and incidents described as “terrorism”.

The argument runs that by reducing the number of guns, amnesties will reduce the number that are stolen and curtail the ability of high-risk individuals – “hardened” criminals or otherwise – to get their hands on black market guns.

However, available evidence does not support arguments about theft as a key source of crime gun supply. Although little data is publicly released about crime gun sources, what we know suggests theft accounts for less than 10% of guns traced in relation to criminal activity.

Problematically, many guns come from “unknown” sources. For example, there was no record of the sawn-off shotgun used in the Lindt Cafe siege ever legally entering the country, and it seems the revolver used to murder Curtis Cheng has equally vague origins.

We also know from international studies that criminals are resourceful and highly adaptable. When one source of firearm supply closes off, they typically have networks enabling them to switch to alternative sources.

This is part of the reason why tackling criminal possession of firearms is so challenging. And when we think about the drivers of demand for illegal guns as well as supply, responding becomes even more difficult.

This is why it is disappointing that Australian thinking follows such predictable, well-trodden paths. It seems politicians and bureaucrats tasked with developing firearm policies have little interest in new, innovative, and evidence-based responses to complex problems, and would rather just do more of what they have been doing for decades.

By all means run amnesties. There is no harm in them. They provide a great means for people who want to obey the law to get rid of guns that are unwanted or that they may not legally possess.

The ConversationBut let’s be realistic about what amnesties are, and are not, likely to deliver.

Samara McPhedran, Senior Research Fellow, Violence Research and Prevention Program, Griffith University

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

Two systems, one headache: Hong Kong twenty years after the handover to China



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The CCP seems intent on bringing Hong Kong into line.
Shutterstock

Nick Bisley, La Trobe University

Hong Kong had suffered “more than a century of vicissitudes”. So declared Jiang Zemin on July 1, 1997, at the return of the colony to “the motherland”. Twenty years on from the handover of the British Crown colony, the people of Hong Kong are increasingly experiencing the vicissitudes of communism.

Claimed as a spoil of the first Opium War in 1842, Hong Kong was the last significant colonial outpost relinquished by the British. Zimbabwe had gone in 1980, and in 1984 Margaret Thatcher, of all leaders, agreed to terms with Deng Xiaoping for the handover of the territory to the People’s Republic 13 years later.

A fundamental tenet of the 1984 settlement was that until 2047, Hong Kong would enjoy continuity of the legal, economic and administrative arrangements established by the British. In the words of the Hong Kong Basic Law:

The socialist system and policies shall not be practised in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, and the previous capitalist system and way of life shall remain unchanged for 50 years.

While it had not been an electoral democracy, people who lived in the colony had freedom of association, expression and the rule of law administered by an independent judiciary. This was key to its appeal to those, whether expats or refugees seeking an outpost of liberalism in a largely illiberal Cold War Asia. But it was also fundamental to the economic dynamism of the trade and finance hub.

The confidence that multinational firms, banks and entrepreneurs had in the commercial rule of law, from contracts to intellectual property rights, made the city a remarkable economic success story.

Deng’s China had agreed that even though the party-state’s flag would fly over The Peak these freedoms would continue. Indeed, in 1984, less than a decade into the “reform and opening up” program, and in the very first days of the special economic zone initiative, these guarantees were seen as a vital part of the broader program revitalising China’s economy. Hong Kong promised to be one of the most important engines for economic growth; it made no sense to undermine the foundations of that success.

One China, Two Systems was the slogan in 1997, but it also signalled something more. The PRC was moving away from its command economy past and toward a more market oriented future. And at the time, one of unalloyed liberal optimism, some thought that the Hong Kong settlement might be an experiment in political pluralism. Hong Kong could be a model first for Taiwan and then possibly also for a more open Chinese system.

Two decades after the handover and the party-state is uneasy about that the implications of the exceptionalism of “one country, two systems”. Rather than embracing the pluralism that was inherent in the agreement with the UK, the Chinese Communist Party seems intent on bringing Hong Kong into line. But it is discovering that this may be a more difficult task than it realised.

Beijing seems to have fallen for the tired cliché that Hong Kong people are more interested in money and shopping than they are in political issues. As China scholar Graeme Smith recently said on the excellent Little Red Podcast, Hong Kong is not Singapore. It has long had a politically engaged populace.

In 1967, more than 50 people died in riots prompted by discontent with British rule.

In 1970 frustration with public transport boiled over. The CCP should not have been surprised when in 2003, it attempted to bring the Basic Law – the quasi constitutional arrangement established in 1997 – in line with the mainland’s authoritarian sedition and public security arrangements, the people of Hong Kong protested in huge numbers.

Popular protest against public transport changes occurred in 2007 and in 2014 the “umbrella revolution” showed the depth of pro-democracy sentiment in the SAR, especially among the young. Now, there is what has come to be known as the “locallist” movement, which seeks to retain Hong Kong’s distinctive features. It aims to frustrate Beijing’s desire to turn July 1, the felicitously named Special Administrative Region Establishment Day, into a celebration of national glory.

Hong Kong has always been exceptional. From its architecture to its accents, the people’s attitude to their appetites, Hong Kong is unlike anywhere else. Given this, it is understandable that the party state would want to turn the city into a model communist enclave. The problem is that that which makes Hong Kong vibrant, cosmopolitan and globally engaged sits very uneasily with CCP dictates.

As the party state embarks on the difficult journey moving from a middle to a high income country, it should reflect on the problems it faces in Hong Kong. A people who have enjoyed 150 years of freedom do not enjoy those ideas being shackled.

And it is those very ideas that are needed for the PRC to make good on its ambition to become a genuinely prosperous country. At some point the CCP has to make its peace with the freedom of ideas and a plurality of voices. Hong Kong should be the place where it figures out how to do this.

The ConversationInstead, 20 years on from the handover, rather than being a pathfinder for pluralism, Hong Kong looks like it will become another Xinjiang; a troublesome region that needs to be brought to heel. This clamping down on the freedoms agreed to in 1984 is hardly the sign of a strong and confident country looking to project leadership on the global stage.

Nick Bisley, Executive Director of La Trobe Asia and Professor of International Relations, La Trobe University

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

Minister to get unprecedented power if Australia’s new citizenship bill is passed



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It’s not clear how proposed extensive powers for the immigration minister strengthen the integrity of Australian citizenship.
AAP/Lukas Coch

Sangeetha Pillai, UNSW

The government has introduced legislation to reform Australia’s citizenship regime, under the guise of strengthening the integrity of citizenship. The bill, if passed in its current form, confers sweeping new powers on the immigration minister.

Access to Australian citizenship has always involved some executive discretion. But if the bill is passed, the minister will gain unprecedented control over the criteria governing citizenship acquisition, the time it takes for a person to gain citizenship after their application has been approved, and even the circumstances in which citizenship can be revoked.

The minister will also be able to override certain citizenship decisions made by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT).

Powers to control citizenship acquisition

The bill gives the minister a range of new powers that relate to various aspects of the citizenship acquisition process.

As the government’s discussion paper on the proposed changes indicated, the bill creates several new requirements for citizenship applicants. Aspiring citizens will be required to demonstrate “competent English”, and show they have “integrated into the Australian community”.

The bill gives the minister the power to create regulations determining what these requirements mean. It also allows the minister to determine an Australian Values Statement, which applicants will be required to sign and lodge with their citizenship application.

Where a person’s application for citizenship has been approved, the bill gives the minister a new power to cancel this approval, if he or she determines it should no longer be granted – for any reason.

While determining whether to exercise this cancellation power, the minister may block a person from acquiring citizenship for up to two years by barring them from making the mandatory citizenship pledge.

Power to override AAT decisions

As foreshadowed, the bill also seeks to give the minister the power to override certain citizenship decisions made by the AAT.

The AAT is an independent administrative tribunal that reviews executive decisions on their merits. A person whose application for citizenship is rejected may apply to the AAT to have this decision reviewed.

The bill enables the minister to personally override AAT decisions in particular circumstances. This power applies where it has reviewed a departmental decision to refuse citizenship, provided a ground for refusal was that the applicant was not of good character, or that their identity could not be determined. The minister must also be satisfied that overriding the AAT is in the public interest.

Additionally, the bill removes the right for an applicant to appeal to the AAT where the minister decides to refuse them citizenship, and states that this is in the public interest.

The bill’s explanatory memorandum stresses that ministerial decisions to override the AAT can be reviewed by the courts. However, this is likely to be of limited utility. This is because courts typically regard the “public interest” as a matter for ministerial determination.

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton has said the proposed power to override AAT decisions merely aligns the minister’s citizenship powers with powers that exist in relation to visa cancellations.

Current law allows the minister to override certain AAT visa decisions where this is in the national interest, and where the character of the visa holder is at issue. However, these existing override powers weaken – rather than strengthen – the case for the new powers the bill proposes.

To apply for citizenship, a person must have held a visa for several years. Throughout this time, the minister has extensive power to revoke that visa and remove the holder from Australia if they fail to meet character requirements.

Given this, the need for sweeping new powers is unclear.

Power to revoke citizenship

One of the bill’s most insidious features is a proposal to allow the minister to revoke a person’s citizenship, provided they are satisfied the person obtained ministerial approval for citizenship as a result of fraud or misrepresentation. The minister must also be satisfied it would be contrary to the public interest for the person to remain an Australian citizen.

Current citizenship laws allow the minister to revoke citizenship where it is acquired by fraud. However, before this can be done, the person or a third party must be convicted by a court of migration fraud.

If the bill is passed, such a conviction will no longer be necessary. The minister will have the power to determine when fraud or misrepresentation has occurred.

The bill does not spell out the criteria that will be used to make such decisions. But, it does specify that misrepresentation includes “concealing material circumstances”. This absence of criteria creates uncertainty about how the minister will make decisions. It also decreases the prospect of meaningful judicial review.

In particular, it is not clear how the expanded revocation powers interact with the bill’s other provisions.

For example, take a situation where the minister believes a person who has been granted citizenship is not demonstrating the values or integration they were assessed for during the application process. Could the minister revoke citizenship on the basis that the person, when applying for citizenship, misrepresented their values or commitment to integration?

If so, this would create a dangerous back-door route to citizenship revocation for people whose conduct falls far short of the current thresholds that parliament has set.

What’s next?

It is not clear how these extensive ministerial powers strengthen the integrity of Australian citizenship.

The ConversationQuite the contrary, creating broad executive powers with minimal review undermines the rule of law. This, ironically, is said to be one of the fundamental values underpinning Australian citizenship.

Sangeetha Pillai, Senior Research Associate, Andrew & Renata Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law, UNSW Law School, UNSW

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

Turnbull’s Trump riff won’t please The Donald but it could be a hit at home



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Malcolm Turnbull’s Midwinter Ball speech parodying Donald Trump has received international attention.
Lukas Coch/AAP

Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

We can presume that even without the assistance of Nine’s Laurie Oakes, Washington officialdom would have heard soon enough about Malcolm Turnbull’s riff on Donald Trump at Wednesday’s Midwinter Ball.

After all, among the hundreds of guests in Parliament’s Great Hall was James Carouso, the US embassy’s charge d’affaires. Any diplomat doing their job properly would inform their government about a speech mentioning their country’s leader, regardless of it being “off the record”.

But there’s a world of difference between a discreet report filtered through the channels of bureaucrats and advisers (who may or may not tell the president) and a blaze of publicity in the media.

Trump is not known for humour when the joke’s on him, and Turnbull’s hilarious send-up is likely to go down poorly with him. Whether this matters remains to be seen.

It was a great speech; I’ll leave readers to hunt for the now readily available detail, as I was present on the off-the-record occasion. It was Malcolm unplugged in a witty, clever way, self-deprecating even when he was sending up Trump.

These ball nights see an informal contest between the prime minister of the day and the opposition leader as to who can perform best. The chatter among guests was that Turnbull’s speech clearly beat that of Bill Shorten.

But, as things turned out, it was a risk-laden exercise.

The leaders prepare their speeches for this night, especially because they have to strike a humorous tone and being seriously funny – as distinct from inserting the odd joke – is not their usual stock in trade.

So it is surprising that someone around Turnbull, if not Turnbull himself, didn’t hear a warning bell.

It is not for lack of precedent. There was that most spectacular “leak” from the press gallery’s 1990 dinner when treasurer Paul Keating’s “Placedo Domingo” speech, seen as an attack on prime minister Bob Hawke, which caused a crisis between the two.

This week’s incident has sparked questions and debate about journalists’ ethics and practices.

Should Oakes have put the speech to air? In my opinion, he had absolutely every right to do so – he wasn’t there and so had not consented to the “off-the-record” terms.

Is the leaker, whoever it was, to be condemned? Whether you think they should be, leaks happen. We journalists encourage them, so we shouldn’t be hypocritical about this one.

We should, incidentally, respond with a horse laugh to the attempt by Mathias Cormann to suggest the leak might be Shorten’s fault. That was quickly denied by Oakes.

Should the ball be off the record anyway? Surely this is an absurdity, given the number of people present, including lobbyists, business figures, politicians, staffers and diplomats, as well as journalists.

Obviously leaders would be blander if they were talking on the record. This is not a credible reason, however, for drawing a curtain over what is effectively a public dinner. It simply looks like excessively “insider” behaviour between media and politicians.

But the debate about ethics is less important at the moment than the consideration of possible consequences of Turnbull’s speech.

The latest incident comes against the background of the up-and-down start to the Turnbull-Trump relationship.

There was the fraught phone call early this year in which Trump denounced the deal the Obama administration did for the US to take some refugees from Manus Island and Nauru. At the other extreme came the over-the-top love-in during their press conference in New York when Turnbull, to his discredit, agreed with Trump that the account of the phone call had been fake news.

The government is pushing the point that Turnbull’s Trump references were all just a bit of fun, showing another side of him. The speech was “affectionately light-hearted”, Turnbull has said.

The US embassy played down the affair, saying “we take this with the good humour that was intended”, as did Australia’s ambassador in Washington, Joe Hockey, who quipped: “The administration hasn’t rung us up and I haven’t been hauled into the White House and sent back to Australia so far as I’m aware.”

But in view of the background and Trump’s prickly nature, the government will be holding its breath.

Trump might have so much on his plate that he doesn’t give Turnbull a second thought.

But if he got hissy, what is the worst he could do? The only immediate serious thing one can think of would be to go even more slowly on the refugee deal, already proceeding at a snail’s pace. That indeed would be a high price to pay for a joke or three.

He could be more difficult in future interactions with Turnbull. After Kevin Rudd leaked his disparaging remarks about George W Bush following a phone conversation the two had about the G20, their relationship became particularly frosty.

But the affair should be kept in perspective. Sometimes the Australian and US leaders of the day are joined at the hip – Lyndon Johnson and Harold Holt, John Howard and Bush. Historically, that can be seen as a good or a bad thing. Sometimes relations are tense – Gough Whitlam and Richard Nixon, Rudd and Bush after the G20 affair.

But as is often pointed out, the Australian-American relationship is based on shared interests. Thus Australia failing to forewarn the Americans that it was leasing the Port of Darwin to the Chinese was a much more serious offence than a bit of close-to-the-bone humour.

And, as a story in the Washington Post that reported Turnbull’s speech illustrated, when it comes to Trump Turnbull isn’t on his lonesome. It noted Trump has become “the butt of jokes in capitals around the world”.

The Conversation“Fellow world leaders appear emboldened to poke fun at him as a way to bolster their political standing,” the story said. Now that would be an upside for Turnbull.

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

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