Liberal democracy

Mass-murderer Castro dies unpunished

If there is a Latin American nation in which human rights and the rule of law seem to have completely vanished, that nation certainly is Cuba. And yet the recently deceased dictator Fidel Castro remains revered by those who regard him as a revolutionary hero who bravely stood against ‘capitalism’ and ‘American imperialism’.

Amongst these leftist admirers of Castro are the Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau and the leader of the Opposition in Australia, Bill Shorten. Mr Shorten has been to Cuba and he deeply admired a notorious six-hour speech delivered by Castro. ‘It was amazing,’ Shorten said. Of course, he is not the only Labor leader to deeply admire the brutal dictator. British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said Castro was a ‘champion of social justice’ — a nonsensical statement given all the people Castro brutally murdered and all the human rights he grossly violated.

The fact that so many left-wing leaders have expressed admiration to Castro should be a reason for great concern. After all, since the adoption by Castro of Marxist-Leninism in 1959 the Cuban regime has sanctioned the brutal assassination of dissidents, the introduction of retroactive criminal legislation, the confiscation of property for political reasons, and numerous other ’emergency measures’ against the so-called ‘enemies’ of the communist regime.

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China’s new tool for control

A disturbing article in the Wall Street Journal on Monday on China’s latest innovation in social control:

Hangzhou’s local government is piloting a “social credit” system the Communist Party has said it wants to roll out nationwide by 2020, a digital reboot of the methods of social control the regime uses to avert threats to its legitimacy.

More than three dozen local governments across China are beginning to compile digital records of social and financial behavior to rate creditworthiness. A person can incur black marks for infractions such as fare cheating, jaywalking and violating family-planning rules. The effort echoes the dang’an, a system of dossiers the Communist party keeps on urban workers’ behavior.

In time, Beijing expects to draw on bigger, combined data pools, including a person’s internet activity, according to interviews with some architects of the system and a review of government documents. Algorithms would use a range of data to calculate a citizen’s rating, which would then be used to determine all manner of activities, such as who gets loans, or faster treatment at government offices or access to luxury hotels.

The endeavor reinforces President Xi Jinping’s campaign to tighten his grip on the country and dictate morality at a time of economic uncertainty that threatens to undermine the party. Mr. Xi in October called for innovation in “social governance” that would “heighten the capacity to forecast and prevent all manner of risks.”

The national social-credit system’s aim, according to a slogan repeated in planning documents, is to “allow the trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step.”

Thus far, the pilot data-collecting systems aren’t yet tied together into what Beijing envisions as a sweeping system, which would assign each citizen a rating. It isn’t clear that Ms. Chen’s ticket infraction made it into any central system, although the notice warned that fare-dodgers risked being marked down starting Jan. 1; a station agent said only repeat offenders are reported.

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Rowan Callick on Chinese democracy

A fascinating piece from Rowan Callick in The Australian today on the repressive nature of Chinese democracy, where those insufficiently loyal to the ruling Communist party are not allowed to participate:

Today, under Xi Jinping, we are seeing clear limits on how far popular representation can go.

This approach is now being applied consistently, through mainland China and in special administrative regions such as Hong Kong, where two awkward young legislators were disqualified from taking their places on Tuesday night…

In mainland China, everyone above 18 can vote for their district People’s Congress representatives, who do not have to be party members. Those congresses meet for five years. The local congresses choose the representatives for the municipal or provincial level congresses, which choose those who form the National People’s Congress that meets every March in Beijing.

… Under China’s constitution, anyone can stand for membership of a district congress. In practice, party authorities will assess candidates. Those who pass muster initially but act too independently after being elected are soon weeded out. Others who ­appear palpably unacceptable to the authorities are prevented from standing.

All must in time, if not at the start, defer to the party hierarchy, which is superior to the civic structures and retains the power to veto or initiate policies.

No access is available to the mass media or social media for candidates to explain themselves. The only way to present a case is to meet voters in person.

Five years ago in Wukan, a ­village in Guangdong province in the country’s south, in the dying days of the Hu-Wen leadership team, a bitter dispute over an ­alleged land grab by party officials of farms was defused by ­villagers being allowed to choose their own leaders.

However, these leaders were unable to wrest back the stolen land and protests began again — this time led by Lin Zuluan, elected in 2011. The authorities’ deployed heavily armed riot police, and jailed Lin. The courts confirmed a three-year sentence last month and fined him $40,000. He and the villagers who continued to back him said the corruption charges were trumped up.

In the outskirts of southwest Beijing, villagers of Gaodiansan in Fangshan district had two rounds of voting — the first round reducing the number of candidates. Farmer Liu Huizhen, 45, received substantial support and reached the second round.

But by then the authorities had woken up to the risk of letting her reach any further. She told The Australian she was followed constantly by as many as 20 well-built agents.

Her home is a crude wooden structure, which she and her husband built on land her family had farmed until it was confiscated by the government. The compensation was $50 per adult per month — in a city where the cost of living is considerably higher than Sydney’s.

She said the local government gave police the election records from the first round and visited each of the villagers who had voted for her.

“They asked why they had supported me. After that, most of my neighbours were too scared to do so in the second round,” she said. “All my neighbours had lost land too, and I wanted to speak on behalf of them if I had been elected.”

Liu was defeated in the second ballot.

Xu Zhiyong, a lecturer at ­Beijing’s University of Posts and Telecommunications, won two terms from 2003 and opposed the forced repatriation to hometowns of those without a Beijing hukou, or registration or who represented the families of children who fell sick after taking milk powder enhanced with ­mela­mine. Soon after stepping down from the congress, he was jailed for four years for “disturbing the social order”.

 

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Ministerial confusion a symptom of big government

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Ministers Marise Payne, Christopher Pyne and Dan Tehan

Today’s revelation by the ABC that 100 days after the federal election, Australia’s three defence ministers still don’t actually know what their responsibilities are, is a classic example of what happens when government is too big.

A fortnight after the July election, FreedomWatch highlighted the Turnbull Government’s 42 executive officeholders and 53 portfolios, and how this compared unfavourably with the first Barton ministry and the first post-war Menzies ministry.

According to the ABC, a ministerial turf war over who controls what, is responsible for this extraordinary delay. Taxpayers may well ask if they still don’t actually have a job description after three months can we please have a refund of their ministerial salaries!

In the real world the job comes before the person – i.e. something needs to be done so you find someone to do it, and if you can’t afford it, you either prioritise, work longer hours or just forget about it. But in the world of government they give as many people as many jobs and titles as they can, paid for by the long-suffering taxpayer, and worry about what they actually have to do later.

Labor is no better, and now has a whopping 48 shadow ministers. There are so many people on the gravy train that one of Labor’s few non-ex-union-official MPs, former economist Andrew Leigh, had to take a pay cut to stay on board.

With federal government spending forecast to pass $500 billion per year in 2019-20 and gross federal debt to pass $500 billion in the next twelve months, it is clear that the size of government and the red tape it creates and administers is out of control.

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No end in sight to big government

The new Turnbull Ministry, announced this afternoon, includes 42 executive officeholders with a total of 53 portfolios.

With the possible exception of the onward march of Federal Government spending which has gone from $140 billion in 1997-98 to $445 billion in 2016-17, or gross debt which will pass $500 billion sometime in the next twelve months, there is little else that better demonstrates how the size of government and the red tape it creates and administers is out of control.

These numbers, while broadly in line with the first Turnbull Ministry of 2015, compare particularly unfavourably with the first Barton ministry and the first post-war Menzies ministry.

The Prime Minister’s own department now has nine different Ministers, “Assistant Ministers” and “Ministers Assisting” across ten portfolios, including Indigenous Affairs, Women, Cyber Security and Counter-Terrorism.

The Whitlam-era federal involvement in the design of cities, which was resurrected last year, now appears to have two Ministers, with Angus Taylor the Assistant Minister for Cities and Digital Transformation (reporting to the PM) and Paul Fletcher the Minister for Urban Infrastructure (reporting to the Minister for Infrastructure and Transport).

Social Security has four ministers, there is a still a Minister for Sport and for the Arts and there is a Minister for Rural Communications separate to the Minister for Communications.

Even in Defence, where there was once a single Minister, there are now three defence officeholders with five portfolios – Defence, Defence Industry, Veterans’ Affairs, Defence Personnel and the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Centenary of ANZAC.

While Josh Frydenberg’s appointment as Minister for the Environment and Energy is a welcome portfolio consolidation, it looks like that is it.

The more people that are appointed to office, the more legislation and regulations they try to pass, so they look like they are doing something. Small government is not coming to Australia any time soon.

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Who gifts human rights to the UK?

When British Home Secretary Theresa May called for the United Kingdom to exit the European Convention on Human Rights, the cries of indignation were entirely predictable. Her comments were dismissed as ‘an irresponsible and dangerous strategy’ that ‘will provide comfort to human rights abusers‘. A video sketch starring actor Patrick Stewart swiftly followed. The sketch shows Stewart as the British Prime Minister asking his Cabinet ‘What has the European Convention on Human Rights ever done for us?’

The answer may surprise you. Apparently the European Convention gave human rights to the British people. According to this sketch it was responsible for – amongst other things – the right to a fair trial, freedom of religion, freedom of expression and freedom from slavery. Before the European Convention it seems that the British people entirely lacked these basic rights and freedoms.

This demonstrates a complete misunderstanding of the historical foundations of these fundamental human rights. Human rights did not materialise only in modern times with the emergence of supra-national bodies and treaties. In fact, the origins of human rights can be traced well back in history, with key English contributions including the Magna Carta in 1215 and Bill of Rights in 1689.

Why does this matter? It matters because we all too frequently treat these regional and international human rights treaties and bodies with excessive reverence and fail to acknowledge the historical traditions they are building on. The European Convention didn’t gift human rights to the United Kingdom. Nor should it be the final word on human rights.

It is entirely fitting for the United Kingdom to think about their broader European involvement at the same time as they are approaching a referendum to decide whether or not to remain within the European Union. A treaty should never be beyond scrutiny or criticism, and should never be held up as either the first or last word on human rights.

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So much for the “Freedom Commissioner”

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Less than three years after the Coalition government appointed Tim Wilson as the “Freedom Commissioner“, Attorney-General George Brandis has now appointed someone from an organisation which has repeatedly been on the wrong side of debates on freedoms, and public policy more generally.

This is just some of what the Public Interest Advocacy Centre – led by the new Human Rights Commissioner Edward Santow – has said in recent years:

Freedom of speech:

PIAC has welcomed the Federal Government’s decision not to proceed with proposed changes to section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act…

‘Freedom of speech is a crucial human right but so too is the right not to be vilified on the basis of your race or ethnicity. Serious race-based insult, offence and humiliation can be deeply wounding and threatens important aspects of Australia’s liberal democracy,’ said Edward Santow, PIAC’s CEO.

Constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders:

PIAC generally supports the proposal for a statement of values or recognition, which appropriately recognises Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the Constitution… PIAC submits that constitutional protection is imperative to protect the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians against racial discrimination.

Freedom of religion:

We oppose, in particular, the granting of blanket exemptions to churches and religious organisations from anti-discrimination laws.

Suing Coles for its “discriminatory” website:

“Ms Mesnage relies on a screen-reader to use the internet. Like many people who are blind or have a vision impairment, she has had ongoing problems using the Coles website to do her shopping since 2008,” PIAC CEO, Edward Santow said.

Pro Bono Australia News reported in October 2014 that after negotiations with Coles failed to bring about a solution, Mesnage brought legal proceedings against the supermarket chain under the Disability Discrimination Act 1992.

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Submission: National Integrity Commission

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Last week, Simon Breheny and myself sent this submission to the Senate’s select committee relating to the establishment of a ‘National Integrity Commission’.

Drawing on the historical experience with state level anti-corruption agencies, we argue that a “federal ICAC” would lack accountability, invite abuses of power and wield coercive powers which violate the legal rights of individuals.

Such a body would have characteristics that are inconsistent with democratic principles and the rule of law.

Read our submission here.

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Annual reports now silent on senior public servants’ pay packets

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Details of salaries paid to senior federal public servants are no longer included in government departmental annual report, according to a news report in today’s Herald Sun:

In a blow to transparency, a requirement for the reports to reveal specific data on senior public servants’ remuneration has been quietly removed.

A Finance Department spokesman said this represented financial reporting “best practice”, and aligned the public sector with private firms.

But Institute of Public Affairs executive director John Roskam said the public deserved to know the pay details.

“After all, it’s our money and we’re paying for them. There’s no excuse for not being open and transparent about public service salaries in annual reports,” he said.

“It’s things like this that have the public lose faith in politics and politicians.”

Until recently, departmental annual reports included a list of salary bands for senior executives and the number of people in each band getting those salaries.

For example, the Department of Finance annual report for 2013-14 showed that the top earner enjoyed a total remuneration of $1.3 million while the second-highest-paid official got $408,223.

But such detailed information is missing from the department’s latest annual report – it provides only one figure of $20.9 million, showing the total remuneration for all senior executives.

The Herald Sun checked the 2014-15 annual reports of 16 other federal agencies, including the Australian Human Rights Commission and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and found the same situation.

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January 25: Australia Day? Almost

“The First Fleet in Sydney Cove, January 27, 1788”, by John Allcott


On this day, 251 years ago, Great Britain established its first settlement in the Falkland Islands, at Port Egmont. If not for the weather, the 25th of January would also be known as Australia Day.

Precisely 23 years after the Port Egmont settlement, a British fleet was in the process of establishing another settlement, this time in New South Wales. Captain Arthur Phillip arrived in Botany Bay on the 18th January, but having found the conditions unsuitable, looked elsewhere.

Sydney Cove was selected by Phillip as the place of settlement, and on the 25th January immediately prepared to make the journey.

While Phillip arrived that evening on the HMS Supply, Captain John Hunter, who was following in the transports, was irrevocably delayed. The wind was blowing too strong for them leave the bay, leaving the transports to arrive on the following evening instead.

There, the British flag was unfurled, toasts were drunk and volleys of musketry fired. Meanwhile, Australia’s destiny was forever changed.

The First Fleet brought with them British institutions of justice, the rule of law, and constitutional government. With these foundations, later generations would federate the Australian colonies into one of the most successful, stable continuous democracies in the world. This is why we rightly celebrate Australia Day on the 26th January.

And it appears Australians overwhelmingly agree. A new poll conducted by Research Now found that 91 per cent of respondents are “proud to be Australian”, while 85 per cent believe that “Australia Day is a day for celebrating”. (My colleague James Paterson has more here).

While Australia is by no means perfect, we get a lot right – and the world is a much better place for Australia being a part of it.

There will much distress from predictable quarters on what Australia Day means: Ignore this elitist agitation. Be unashamed in celebrating our heritage, and for that matter, don’t let bad winds from 228 years ago stop you from doing it a day “early”.

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