So-called “Science Guy” open to jail-time for sceptics of a scientific theory

A scene from Explorer: Bill Nye's Global Meltdown. (Photo Credit: NG Studios)

Popular U.S. television personality Bill Nye is the latest public official to show contempt for free speech and intellectual inquiry.

Known for the PBS show he hosted in the 1990s, Bill Nye the Science Guy, Nye is a prominent advocate for action on climate change. And when Climate Depot’s Marc Morano recently asked him what he thought of Robert Kennedy Jr.’s comments that some climate sceptics should be prosecuted as war criminals, Nye seemed supportive. The Washington Times reports:

“We’ll see what happens… In these cases, for me, as a taxpayer and voter, the introduction of this extreme doubt about climate change is affecting my quality of life as a public citizen… So I can see where people are very concerned about this, and they’re pursuing criminal investigations as well as engaging in discussions like this.”

The irony of quashing dissent in the scientific community was apparently lost on Nye, who added “That there is a chilling effect on scientists who are in extreme doubt about climate change, I think that is good.”

The mere fact such a position could be seriously contemplated by a public intellectual, let alone a member of the scientific community — which holds scepticism as a central plank of the scientific method — is a sad reflection on society.

But this won’t come as a surprise to readers of FreedomWatch. Whether through trigger warning and microagression policies in the U.S., the scourge of “no-platforming” in the U.K., free speech is under a sustained attack across the Western world.

Last year alone Australia witnessed Bjørn Lomborg’s acceptance, and subsequent expulsion, from a position at the University of Western Australia — not for being a climate sceptic, but for being insufficiently supportive of the anti-fossil fuel agenda promulgated by the Greens.

Then there is the atrocious behaviour of an academic at Queensland University of Technology, Cindy Prior, who has taken a group of students to court under Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. The students supposed crime was a few innocuous Facebook posts about being kicked out of an indigenous-only computer lab. These statements included:

“Just got kicked out of the unsigned indigenous computer room. QUT [is] stopping segregation with segregation” [and] “My Student and Amenity fees are going to furbish rooms in the university where inequality reigns supreme? I believe if we have to pay to support these sorts of places, there should at least be more created for general purpose use, but again, how do these sorts of facilities support interaction­ and community within QUT? All this does is encourage separation and inequality.”

I still have enough faith in the Australian legal system to hope this case will be thrown out. But it is still likely to leave these young students with excessive legal bills of more than $200,000.

It’s at this point that I’m reminded of the words of the great NSW upper house MP, Peter Phelps:

“We should not be so surprised that the contemporary science debate has become so debased. At the heart of many scientists — but not all scientists — lies the heart of a totalitarian planner.”

Maybe Phelps’ statement could be extended to other areas of academia, as well.

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State of the Union: Why it’s not an Australian thing

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This time yesterday, President Barack Obama made the annual journey down Pennsylvania Avenue to deliver his eighth State of the Union address.

American political aficionados will be familiar with this constitutionally required tradition, but as the President gave what will be his final SOTU address, I found myself wondering why it still exists.

The speech was fairly standard. It had the usual calls for civility, a less divisive politics, and for politicians of both parties to work together on areas of common ground. It had a list of accomplishments—some of which are commendable. The president even spoke about his commitment to close the detention centre at Guantanamo Bay, a campaign promise he has been trying and failing to fulfill since his second day in office.

But in no way did this deserve the pomp and ceremony it received, nor the dozen-odd standing ovations.

This highlights a significant difference between Australia and the United States. Despite our cultural similarity, and the fact that parts of our political system bear an unmistakable resemblance to that of our Anglosphere friends, Australians just don’t treat our political leaders with the same level of reverence that the US President receives.

By and large, Australians don’t think much of their politicians. They are viewed as functionaries, whose reputations rely on their performance. This is perhaps why we accept them being swiftly overthrown by their own parties (Rudd was an exception, because the opinion of his colleagues wasn’t representative of the public mood).

We certainly don’t consider them the moral leaders of the nation.

Yes, there are the rare Whitlam’s and Menzies’, who are remembered fondly enough. But even relatively divisive US presidents—like President Obama—are treated with a level of respect approaching that of the British monarch.

Thankfully, Australians are less sycophantic to our politicians than that.

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Victorian taxi industry waves the white flag

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After a year-long campaign of misinformation, the Victorian Taxi Association (VTA) has finally raised the white flag. The Guardian reports:

Victoria’s Taxi Association has abandoned industrial action and campaigning as a response to Uber, admitting the industry has not responded well to customer criticism.

On Monday the association’s chief executive, David Samuel, announced an initiative calling for honest feedback from taxi customers so that the industry could adapt and respond.

To say they haven’t responded well to customer criticism is putting it mildly. As customers unhappy with the level service, availability, and convenience of traditional taxis have gradually abandoned them for new competitors like Uber, the VTA has responded with fear-mongering and calls for government crackdowns.

Their favourite claim was that Uber is unregulated, and therefore unsafe.

On the first point, Uber drivers is not “unregulated”. They are regulated by the same road rules and laws that cover all drivers. They are also subject to a variety of safety measures, which include third party criminal background checks.

Perhaps most importantly, there are quality control and feedback measures embedded in the Uber app, which are intrinsic to their business model. As I argued in the Herald Sun in May, this not only makes Uber (and competitors like Lyft) more convenient than traditional taxis, it also makes them safer.

At the very least, the Victorian Taxi Association seems to have finally realized that this strategy will not work.

The industry’s only chance of survival is to adapt, innovate, and compete with Uber — and future competitors — in the marketplace. Something which, so far, they have failed to do.

But to be fair, this isn’t entirely the taxi industry’s fault. Decades of government protection insulated the industry from competition, lowering the quality of service, and making them less responsive to customer demands. The industry benefited from this protection for decades, time will tell if it will be the cause of their downfall.

The Victorian Taxi Association’s olive branch is a step towards positive legislative reform. Perhaps if they had spent less time attacking their critics — like yours truly — we might have got to this point sooner.


For more on the sharing economy, check out the IPA’s paper by Chris Berg and Darcy Allen: The sharing economy: How over-regulation could destroy an economic revolution.

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Union membership at lowest rate in over 100 years

Screen Shot 2015-10-27 at 12.19.43 AMAustralia’s union membership is at its lowest point in over a century, according to new data released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS).

The latest employment data, released today, shows that union membership fell by more than 2 per cent—over 200,000 people—in a single year. The Australian reports:

Trade union membership declined markedly between August 2013 and 2014, according to fresh statistics published by the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

The ABS figures show the number of people who were trade union members in their main job fell from 17 per cent in August 2013 to only 15 per cent in August 2014.

The fall in union membership occurred across the economy, with union membership in the private sector falling from 12 to 11 per cent, and public sector membership falling from 42 to 39 per cent.

This means that Australia’s rate of union membership is now less than a quarter of what it was at it’s peak in 1962 (61 per cent). Since 1992, it’s fallen by over a third, from 40 to 15 per cent.

This leaves the Australian Labor Party (ALP) as the sole place where union membership has flourished—as IPA research has found, 17 of 25 sitting ALP Senators (68 per cent), and 23 of 55 ALP MPs (42 per cent), are former union officials.

This glaring disparity between union membership and political power is a direct result of the deep interconnected relationship between the ALP and the union movement. Such disproportionate influence of a single interest group is a problem for Australian democracy.


For more on union influence in the ALP, read the IPA’s 2015 report: Unions in Labor: A handbrake on reform (by myself and James Paterson)

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Be ideological, Hockey advises Turnbull

Yesterday, on the 21st of October, Joe Hockey farewelled public life.

As a nation whose political system has long been defined by a rigid party structure—which encourages conformity and punishes dissent—Australia was offered a rare insight into the values and motivations of one of our most senior political figures.

Readers of FreedomWatch will find much to like, and much to dislike, in Hockey’s valedictory speech.

He argued in favour of lower and simpler taxes, for a more flexible employment system (an end to penalty rates), and for an end to the age of entitlement—the topic his brilliant 2012 speech to the IEA. Less pleasing was his praise of Labor’s NBN, his celebration of imposing GST on imported goods, and his hostility towards international tax competition (in the guise of tackling so-called “profit shifting by multinationals”).

But it was his defense of ideology that was most important. After restating his commitment to liberalism, Hockey declared that:

It’s true but it must be said, if you don’t have core beliefs then you have no core. When you’re asked to make very difficult decisions that have a huge impact on people’s lives, without a guiding philosophy, you’ll inevitably be indecisive, or worse, inconsistent.

If the Turnbull government takes anything from Hockey’s speech, it should be this.

As I argued in The Spectator last year, and as Chris Berg argued in The Drum last month, the Abbott government’s problem was not that it was too ideological, it’s problem was that it wasn’t ideological enough.

Without ideology—or, as Hockey put it: a set of core beliefs—politicians are left with mere populism. What results is an inconsistent, short-sighted, and ad-hoc approach to government. In an age of global competition, Australia must enact substantive reform or risk being left behind.

Malcolm Turnbull began his premiership by declaring that he would lead “a thoroughly liberal government, committed to freedom, the individual, and the market.” So far, these are just words. Time will tell if this guides his policies.


Watch Joe Hockey’s full valedictory speech, here.

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Coalition won’t privatize the ABC, but it should allow opt-outs

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Australia’s communications minister has ruled out privatising the ABC. But that doesn’t mean reform can’t be achieved.

Speaking to ABC Radio’s RN Drive, on his first full day in the job, Senator Mitch Fifield stated that he was not seeking to change the ownership arrangements of the ABC.

I was, about seven or eight years ago, a frisky backbencher who sought to give a provocative speech… the key point I was making was that, although people talk about different ownership arrangements, ultimately the Australian public have a settled view on these matters. So changing the ownership arrangements of the ABC is not something that I am seeking to do.

Fifield was attempting to downplay a speech he gave to the Australian Adam Smith Club in 2008.  The wide ranging speech, available on Fifield’s website, included a few brief lines about the merits of privatising the ABC:

Conservatives have often floated the prospect of privatising the ABC and Australia Post. There is merit in such proposals.

But the likely strong public opposition means that any government prepared to go down that path would need to prepare the ground and make the case for the change.

This is hardly a radical statement. If anything Fifield was being overly cautious.

Nevertheless, he is essentially correct. Privatising the ABC is not politically possible with the current climate of opinion.

When the Coalition announced that ABC funding would be “slashed”, as The Conversation described it—yes, I mean the 4.6 per cent cut to their $1.1 billion budget—the proposal was met with outrage.

Simply put, the ABC is too powerful, and too popular, for a government to risk openly confronting it. Any privatisation proposal would bring down the wrath of a well resourced media company with, large audiences across radio, television, and online platforms. The damage done would be made worse by the fact that the ABC has the single largest contingent of journalists in the Canberra press gallery.

Forget about Rudd vs Gillard, or the Whitlam dismissal, fighting ABC privatization, without a change in public opinion, would be the greatest political battle since federation. In inner Melbourne and Sydney, there would be riots on the street.

None of this discounts the many principled arguments for privatising the ABC. The case for privatisation has never been greater, as the IPA’s James Paterson wrote in The Age last year:

Australians have at their fingertips access to more news from more varied sources than ever before.

Unfortunately, the politics don’t yet add up.

But that doesn’t mean the government should avoid all reform. There is at least one principled and politically feasible reform Minister Fifield could pursue. As I outlined in July’s Herald Sun:

The Abbott Government should make funding the ABC an option provided on tax returns.

That would allow Australia’s 11.5 million taxpayers to choose whether the ABC provides value. It wouldn’t require the introduction of commercial advertising and, at the current funding levels, funding the ABC would cost taxpayers less than $2 per week. If support is as strong as the ABC claims, then such a move wouldn’t have any significant impact on its budget. But it will create a level of accountability that doesn’t currently exist.

This proposal, which would be a similar (although voluntary) system to the BBC’s license fee, would keep ownership and funding in public hands. But it would allow people to decide for themselves whether the ABC is a service worth supporting. It would also help increase public accountability and make the ABC more conscious of public demands.

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Netflix highlights the futility of internet filters

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Internet piracy is declining, and it’s a direct result of new streaming services like Netflix.

That is the finding of a new report from consumer group CHOICE. The Australian reports:

Since Netflix launched in March, the number of Australians regularly pirating has dropped by a quarter, say consumer advocacy group CHOICE, which conducted the research.

This will come as no surprise to Netflix. As head of content and acquisition Ted Sarandos explained in 2013, similar falls in piracy have occurred all around the world:

One of the things is we get ISPs to publicise their connection speeds – and when we launch in a territory the Bittorrent traffic drops as the Netflix traffic grows. So I think people do want a great experience and they want access – people are mostly honest. The best way to combat piracy isn’t legislatively or criminally but by giving good options.

Netflix has become so confident in its ability to combat privacy that it has become part of their business strategy.

But this effect is not limited to Netflix. By making content cheap and easily accessible to consumer, online streaming services are only doing what Spotify has done for music, and what Steam has done for gaming.

This validates what the tech industry has been telling governments, and traditional media companies, for years: The best way to combat piracy is by making it it easier to access products legally. The one approach that has failed to have any significant impact is increased law enforcement.

Continue Reading →

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The Nanny State – turning cyclists into criminals since 1990

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Boris Johnson and Arnold Schwarzenegger have both been caught by Victoria’s mandatory bicycle helmet laws.

 

As an Australian living in Washington D.C., I am acutely aware of the rampant crime plaguing this city. No, I don’t mean the prevalence of gun ownership – it’s virtually impossible to own a gun – nor the political corruption that undoubtedly exists. I mean the thousands of people riding bicycles without a helmet.

Okay, so this isn’t a crime in the USA. In fact there is nowhere in the world with nation-wide, all age mandatory helmet laws… except Australia and New Zealand.

Penalties for riding without a helmet in Australia vary state by state. In Victoria it is punishable by a $185 fine, and ultimately, if unpaid, possible imprisonment.

These mandatory helmet laws are symptomatic of the Nanny State mentality that has infected all levels of Australian government.

Continue Reading →

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New food labeling laws add more red tape for business

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Proposed ‘Made in’ country of origin food labels

 

The Abbott government’s new country of origin food labelling proposal is an unnecessary imposition on companies already over-burdened by regulations.

Officially announced in a press conference on Tuesday, the proposal will impose new labelling requirements on Australian businesses, requiring them to detail the amount of Australian ingredients contained in produce.

According to the government’s own calculations, this will cost the Australian economy approximately $37 million per year. Admittedly this will amount to a relatively minor price increase on Australian products, but the accumulative affects will cost Australian jobs and impose new regulatory burdens on businesses.

As I wrote in February:

Accurate compliance will require… comprehensive audits of a company’s supply chain in order to accurately assess the origin of all product ingredients.

This may be a relatively straight forward process for food products containing only two or three different ingredients, but just think of what it will mean for a company that sells canned soup. They will be expected to know the origin of every single ingredient their soup contains, which may vary significantly throughout the year.

Many companies may get the same ingredients from multiple countries all around the world. Australian produce that is in abundance in January might be in scarce supply by June. Are companies expected to constantly change their labels with each new batch they make?

If companies want to market their products as Australian made then they are free to set up a voluntary labeling regime like the one proposed. But to make it mandatory will only add to the mountains of red tape that are already strangling Australian business.

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Coalition boycott of ABC’s Q&A program long overdue

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Today I wrote about the Coalition’s decision to boycott the ABC’s flagship talk-fest, Q&A.

The article will be in Tuesday’s edition of The Age, and is up online now.

Abbott’s decision has provoked outrage from political opponents. Some even suggested that it’s an attack on freedom of speech.

No one would suggest Abbott was attacking freedom of speech by declining an interview with Green-Left Weekly. The political bias of the publication is clear for all to see.

It is perfectly legitimate for politicians—or indeed anyone—to be selective when deciding when to give media interviews or appear on panels.

Unfortunately, this is an accurate comparison. Despite its attempts at objectivity, the institutional make-up of the ABC is clear.

Q&A is a show that favours demagoguery and gotcha journalism. A hostile environment for any government interested in serious policy discussion. And Tony Abbott is right to declare a boycott.

You can read the whole of my article on The Age‘s website.

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