What role does the government have in dealing with cyber-bullying?


Parents, teachers, schools, and communities have a role to play in helping kids deal with cyber-bullying. But what role does the government have?

I have a short peer-reviewed comment paper, published this month, proposing a different way of thinking about the cyberbullying problem. We need to make sure that governments, in their zeal to tackle bullying, do not limit the social learning that is crucial to child development.

First, cyberbullying is not a new form of social activity but rather one new form of bullying. Second, how we conceptualise cyberbullying in relation to traditional bullying will affect our policy approach. Such a subordinate categorisation helps us to direct the possible policy and social responses away from technological or legal responses, which focus on the characteristics of new technologies, and towards the relationships of children in as much as out of school. It also helps to avoid a false sense that by targeting specific forms of expression the bully problem is being tackled. Finally, this approach has the advantage of clarifying the costs of anti-cyberbullying policies, and underlines the importance of respecting the rights of children both to be protected from bullying as well as to develop their identities.

You can read the whole paper here.


Education cannot be a safe space


In The Drum this week I looked at the movement in American higher education towards trigger warnings and safe spaces – apparently benign initiatives that are starting to morph into a distinctly illiberal and counterproductive ideology:

The entire higher education experience is being reconceptualised as a zone of post-trauma, in which students demand faculty protect them from the expression and thoughts of others.

Using the language of psychological harm, ideas are condemned, rather than rebutted. Students can receive “pain” from the decision of another person to write an email. It is wrong to “privilege” free speech, a mere “abstract right”, over personal emotional experience.

It’s hard to think of anything more contrary to the purpose of education – which is, in the broadest sense, the systematic exposure to ideas outside personal experience – than that.

Continue reading here.


Racing integrity commissioner to have access to retained data?


Sal Parna, Victoria’s Racing Integrity Commissioner

Politics, like comedy, is about timing. This week Melbourne has been under its usual racing induced fever. So Victoria’s Attorney-General Martin Pakula took the opportunity on Monday to publicly appeal to the federal government that the Victorian Racing Integrity Commissioner be reinstated as one of the authorised agencies for warrantless access to telecommunications data under the data retention scheme.

Under the data retention bill passed earlier this year, the number of agencies with access had been strictly limited to criminal law enforcement agencies. As the IPA argued at the time, this was almost certain not to last – regulators across the country have been chomping at the bit for years to get a hold of our internet records, and it would be trivially easy for this or future governments to quietly reinstate these agencies into the data retention scheme.

Mandatory data retention is a rolling violation of our privacy. Is such a violation justified in order to protect the “public confidence” in the racing industry?  There are more fundamental issues of public confidence here – the public’s confidence that the government is not routinely harming the privacy of its citizens just to make regulatory enforcement slightly less bureaucratically onerous. If the Victorian Racing Integrity Commissioner needs to access data, they ought to get a warrant.


Ai Weiwei vs Lego


In the Drum this week I tackle the stir created by Lego’s decision not to fill an order from the Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei on the grounds that they do not authorise “political” art. It’s a fascinating clash: between a company with an anti-political founding myth finding itself smack bang in the middle of the uncomfortable and often unhappy relationship between geopolitical power and business:

Lego is not a company well-geared for political controversy. At first glance their policy on controversial uses of their product is sound and clear. No politics, no religion, no military. Chinese democracy activists won’t get Lego’s approval, but then nor will Klu Klux Klan members. Lego wants to remain above the grubby material concerns of politics.

Such anti-political neutrality is obviously impossible. Whether they like it or not, Lego is a player in the cultural life of the human species, and in a way that any of Mattel and Hasbro’s competing brands are not. Lego profits handsomely from that status. Perhaps a truer form of political neutrality would mean paying no attention to the ultimate use of bulk Lego sales.

I suspect the refusal to fill Ai’s order is more a case of mindless adherence to their no-politics policy rather than a sop to the Chinese state. But if it is the latter, with this controversy they’ve found themselves in the invidious position shared by firms around the world who want to service markets in unfree countries like China.

Read the whole thing here.


LISTEN: Chris Berg talks food trucks on 3AW


Anybody who has been to a major American city in the last decade will have been impressed by the large number of food trucks dotting their sidewalks.

Earlier this morning I was interviewed by Neil Mitchell on 3AW to explain why we don’t see similar offerings in Melbourne. The answer, unsurprisingly, is the arcane regulatory hoops and rent-seeking prohibitions that keep food trucks mostly off our streets. Councils have limited the number of trucks allowed in their suburbs to protect existing restaurants from competition.

During the course of the interview, a number of food truck operators called in with their experiences about how hard it is to operate across Victoria, and how the permit system is holding back food diversity and choice.

You can listen to the interview here. And I wrote about food trucks in the Sunday Age back in 2013.


Mandatory internet data retention comes into operation today

Simon Breheny and I have been arguing the case against data retention since it was first mooted by the Gillard government – it violates the privacy of every Australian just in case they are later accused of criminality, it will be used for more than just anti-terror policies, and there are alternative policies and approaches which better respect individual liberty. You can read the IPA’s submission to the parliament’s data retention inquiry here.

But all the critiques aside, data retention is shaping up to be a case study in poor policy implementation.

Internet service providers have long argued that retaining that amount of data would be prohibitively complex. In fact, one of the most striking things about the whole debate has been the gap between how easily government has suggested implementing data retention would be and how ISPs have said it would be.

No surprise then that Fairfax is reporting that 80 per cent of ISPs are not actually going ‘live’ with data retention compliance today, but have applied for extensions of 18 months. There is widespread confusion about how much data is to be retained, and no transparency on how the ISPs will be compensated for storing masses of information on their customers’ activity.

Implementation was going to always be a problem with data retention. But it is hard not to conclude that the implementation problems ISPs are now experiencing are the direct result of the government’s lack of conceptual and technical clarity about how data retention relates to current ISP practices.


Oakes’ press freedom speech silent on Labor’s freedom of speech controversies


Laurie Oakes speaking at the Melbourne Press Club

Laurie Oakes’ Melbourne Press Freedom Dinner speech last Friday was a broadside against limits on freedom of the press in the name of national security. You can read it here.

It was revealing in more ways than one. Because national security is hardly the only domestic attack on free speech in recent years. Oakes’ speech shows – by omission – that the bulk of the journalistic community was missing in action on almost every major domestic freedom of speech controversy under the Gillard government. These are missing from Oakes’ speech.

The contest over section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act has been a centrepiece of federal politics since the Andrew Bolt case in 2011. There is a bill currently before parliament to amend section 18C right now. Section 18C is clearly, obviously, undeniably a free speech issue. Yet there was no real outcry from our nation’s journalistic corps on section 18C.

Nor was there any great media outcry when the Gillard government introduced the Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill in 2012, which would have made it possible for colleagues to sue each other for expressing their political opinions. Another obvious free speech issue.

Now, it is true that media proprietors and editors got agitated about the Gillard government’s media regulation legislation in 2013. But I recall debating journalists at the time who supported the laws. And the regulation proposals had near universal support from journalism academics, those who are to instruct the next generation of journalists. This wasn’t the apathy Oakes describes about recent national security laws. This was outright advocacy.

Finally, it is notable that there was no discernible gnashing of teeth from journalists when the Abbott government decided not to pursue its promise to repeal section 18C. After all, that decision was specifically because the government wanted to push national security changes.

Telling the story of national security law changes without any context – the context of a prolonged debate about the importance of freedom of speech under the previous government – lets the media off lightly.


What’s good for a media release is not necessarily good for freedom of association


Around Australia, anti-association laws have already proven themselves to be highly arbitrary and have led to some serious unintended consequences. But anti-association laws have one advantage: they make good law and order media releases.

Hence the Victorian government introduced into parliament earlier this month its own Criminal Organisations Control Amendment (Unlawful Associations) Bill 2015, designed to prohibit “habitual consorting” and unlawful association. You can read the Attorney-General Martin Pakula’s second reading speech here.

I explained the problems with anti-association and anti-consorting laws in the Drum when, in 2012, the NSW government was offering its own reforms:

Consorting laws are good for smoothing the wheels of prosecution – if you think the goal of a legal system is to maximise prosecutions. But their ability to prevent or punish serious criminal activity are limited.

Consorting laws are clearly unjust for those accused of consorting. But they are cruel for those who have been convicted and punished for a crime. A malicious police officer could eliminate a released criminal’s freedom of association simply by issuing his friends with a warning.

When governments face law and order problems, the urge to “do something” must be overwhelming. The newspapers call for action. Talkback radio calls for crackdowns. Police call for more police power.

But police and prosecutors already have a long list of offences they can charge, and they have ample powers to do so. Nobody seriously believes motorcycle gangs are an unprecedented threat that a modern legal system is powerless against, yet for some reason everybody acts as if they are.

Benjamin Franklin famously said, “Those who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

Freedom of association – a freedom that extends even to those who have in the past been convicted of a crime – is one of those essential liberties.


Australia is a Nanny State: IPA


Paternalistic government policies have led to Australia becoming a Nanny State, according to a new submission from the Institute of Public Affairs. The IPA today is appearing in Canberra before the Senate Inquiry into Personal Choice and Community Impacts, chaired by Liberal Democrats Senator David Leyonhjelm.

“Australia’s political parties have the mindset that governments know better than the people they govern,” says Chris Berg, Senior Fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs and the co-author of the submission with Simon Breheny, Director of the Legal Rights Project at the Institute of Public Affairs.

“This attitude is shown in regulatory approaches to a number of policy areas where individuals have the ability to harm themselves. When governments prevent people from consuming what they like, they display a fundamental mistrust of the capabilities of Australian citizens,” says Mr Berg.

The areas of public policy the IPA’s submission focuses on are:

  • Public health: “The meaning of the phrase ‘public health’ has become distorted, and provides a dubious justification for the state to pursue paternalistic policies such as plain packaging and lockouts,” says Mr Berg.
  • Speech: “Through classification and internet filters, the government is showing a distrust of the Australian people to make up their own minds about sensitive topics, and purport to decide what Australians can read on their behalf,” says Mr Berg.
  • Taxation: “Governments have used taxation policy to influence paternalistic goals, with the infamous example of this being the alcopops tax to curb binge drinking,” says Mr Berg.

“Australia needs to rethink the relationship between state and individual. Current and future governments must look for ways to restore individual liberty by repealing Nanny State regulations,” says Mr Berg.

The IPA’s submission to the Senate Inquiry into Personal Choice and Community Impacts can be downloaded here.

For media and comment: Chris Berg, Senior Fellow, Institute of Public Affairs, at [email protected] or 0402 257 681 OR

Simon Breheny, Director, Legal Rights Project, Institute of Public Affairs, at [email protected] or 0400 967 382


Using “Royal Commission like powers” to attack your political enemies


The Queensland Labor government is launching an inquiry into political donations and the awarding of contracts – clearly and explicitly targeting the previous LNP government, which increased the donation declaration limit when it was in government.

This inquiry will be conducted by the Queensland Crime and Corruption Commission with “Royal Commission like powers”.

In other words, the sort of powers which would normally only be available to courts. In the Drum last year I argued that Royal Commissions were extraordinarily powerful, risked legal rights and eliminated traditional common law protections.

The Palaszczuk government’s use of the Crime and Corruption Commission to go after the previous government’s affairs is nakedly political. It’s also a sign that the precedent being set at the Commonwealth level – which has seen two Labor prime ministers and a serving opposition leader made to appear in front of Royal Commissions in the last two years – is leading us down a tit-for-tat path.

Royal Commissions – and Royal Commission like powers – should be used sparingly. They should only be used where the normal law enforcement systems have obviously failed, and no possible policy or enforcement solution is possible.

Royal Commissions are declarations that our institutions have failed. They should never, ever be used for party politics.


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