Opposing 18C reform would tar Turnbull’s government with the image of unstable government

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Hal GP Colebatch’s latest article in The Spectator warns Turnbull of the danger to his premiership in opposing Senator Bob Day’s section 18C amendments:

Family First Senator Bob Day put forward a sensible compromise – to remove the vague words ‘offend’ and ‘insult’ from the [Racial Discrimination] Act but to retain the words ‘humiliate’ and ‘intimidate’ in the definition of offences – words which are at least relatively justiciable.

Despite his previous support of this, Turnbull said in Question Time recently that he would not be reopening the matter, and that ‘the government has no plans to change the Racial Discrimination Act at all’. This is the man who used his forensic skills in favour of freedom of speech and expression in the Spycatcher trial.

The Day amendment is supported by a number of government Senators, and was co-sponsored by Liberal Senators Cory Bernardi and Dean Smith as well as Liberal Democrat David Leyonhjelm. To have such a significant revolt right at the beginning of his prime ministership would be disastrous for Turnbull and would tar him further with the Rudd-Gillard image of unstable government.

Well worth reading.

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Why Sir John Kerr got it right 40 years ago

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While 11 November should be the day that we all remember the end of World War I and those who made the ultimate sacrifice to protect our freedom, today also marks 40 years since the Whitlam government was dismissed by Governor-General Sir John Kerr. An event, like Woodstock and Watergate, which is cited ad infinitum by baby boomers determined to re-live their childhood to the fatigue of the rest of us.

The Whitlam government was Australia’s most erratic and incompetent. The 1975 budget was blocked by the opposition in the Senate – a tactic Labor used 169 times in opposition between 1949 and 1972 (the only difference was that they weren’t successful). After months of political wrangling, with the prime minister refusing to call an election, the opposition refusing to compromise and the people stuck in the middle, the Governor-General commissioned Malcolm Fraser to form a government on the condition that:

(a) his MPs pass the 1975 budget;

(b) he not introduce any major policies while he was only the caretaker prime minister;

(c) the dissolution proclamation include 21 blocked Whitlam government bills so that if Whitlam won the election he could pass them in a joint sitting of parliament; and that

(d) he immediately call a general election so that the people could decide the government.

There was no coup – there was an election. Gough Whitlam lost the 1975 election by the biggest landslide in Australian history, and lost heavily again in 1977.

For this, Sir John has been treated abysmally by history, with his memory and actions subject to bizarre allegations questioning his sobriety, the alleged impropriety of seeking legal advice (are people suggesting he should have spoken with nobody?), and even the involvement of America’s CIA.

Sir John Kerr did the best he could to navigate the massive egos of Malcolm Fraser and Gough Whitlam, while also respecting the Constitution, finding a way for the budget to the passed and ensuring that the final decision was made by the Australian people.

His memory deserves a lot more respect.

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High Court decides separation of powers case

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The High Court today handed down its judgment on a case which tested “paperless arrest” laws, and the separation of powers itself, in the Northern Territory.

Relatively new arrest and detention powers in the territory added to the Police Administration Act (NT) gives a police officer the power to arrest and then detain a person for up to four hours without a warrant where the officer believes, on reasonable grounds, that the person has committed, was committing, or about to commit an ‘infringement notice offence‘. These offences range from the relatively minor, and somewhat peculiar offences, such as dumping a refrigerator or other container without first removing the door, to more serious public order laws prohibiting “riotous” behaviour.

It’s important to note that these powers had little oversight from the courts. Only after the four hours were up and someone was brought before the court was the judiciary involved. This formed an important plank of the plaintiff’s argument that the laws gave the executive a power to detain which was punitive or penal in character, and thus beyond the legislative power of the territorial government.

The court held that the four hour time limit is not penal, but administrative in character. However, the case does highlight whether such laws are appropriate. For instance, it’s unjustifiable to detain a person for four hours without recourse for dumping a refrigerator.

And while the power to arrest and detain for infringement notice offences already applies to 35 prescribed offences, the government can simply add more by passing new regulations. These laws deserve more scrutiny.


The High Court’s full judgment, and a summary of the case, can be found here.

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Senate motion in support of free speech defeated

Nationals senator Matt Canavan moved this very sensible, agreeable motion in the Senate on Monday, noting:

(a) the important role freedom of speech plays in the exercise of public debate;

(b) that informed public debate requires the expression of different views, even if you disagree with them;

(c) that this nation has fought wars for democracy, for freedom of speech and for the right to protest; and

(d) that attempts by the Australian Greens and their supporters to introduce legislation banning peaceful protest from public areas is an attack on a fundamental right and should be opposed.

Somehow, this inoffensive motion was defeated: 29 noes to 29 ayes:

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There was little debate prior to the vote, with Greens senator Larissa Waters (Qld) the only one to make a statement, indicating that the hostility to freedom of speech this time was due to the elevation of the right to walk towards certain buildings (in this case, providers of abortion services) without seeing something you disagree with.

It is worth noting that crossbench senators Dio Wang and John Madigan both voted yes to the motion. It’s very encouraging to see crossbench support of free speech generally, as it may indicate support for free speech specifically – including section 18C reform.

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ICAC’s “abuse of the process”

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From The Australian today:

ICAC investigator Paul Grainger arrived early on the morning of July 30 last year, with a “notice to produce” when he ordered sales associate Sophia Tilley and her boyfriend Stephen Wyllie to hand over their mobile phones.

ICAC officers Tim Fox and Sharon Loder took two mobile phones belonging to Ms Cunneen, a deputy senior crown prosecutor, using a similar form, signed by ICAC Commissioner Megan Latham on July 23 last year.

[Alan Sullivan QC] said the purpose of a “notice to produce” was to require a person’s attendance at a nominated time, at which point they would produce the requested materials.

It would be quite clearly, in my view, an abuse of the process to try to rely upon this document for an officer of ICAC to attend at someone’s house and then say, ‘I’m attending here, you give the documents to me’,” he said. The notice “cannot be used as a substitute for a search warrant“.

And yet, the NSW parliament is debating whether or not to give this lawless agency the power to launch its own prosecutions. The government has been pushed to amend a bill to specify that the power to launch a prosecution does not apply to ICAC unless it has approval from the Crown prosecutors, which is a marginal improvement to a bad law.

Let’s talk about abolition instead.

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Polling reveals voter hostility to GST increase

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There has been much discussion from within the Australian policy commentariat for increasing the burden of the GST on taxpayers, but it would be wise to ask what do voters think of the idea?

Of course, the Turnbull government hasn’t offered any plan, and we don’t even know if the next election will be fought on the issue, but snippets of focus group polling suggest the punters might not like the prospect of a GST rate increase or base broadening:

Swing voters remain hostile towards a GST increase, according to research that echoes rising fears among the Coalition backbench that talk of an increased or broadened consumption tax is eroding support for reform.

The focus group polling, conducted by veteran pollster Tony Mitchelmore, underscores the challenge facing the government in that it finds swing voters tend to perceive talk of an increased GST in isolation and regard it as “unaffordable”, “making the cost of living even worse”, and “hitting poor people”.

The polling was conducted after Malcolm Turnbull supplanted Tony Abbott as Prime Minister and canvassed the views of marginal seat voters in western Sydney who switched from Labor to the Coalition at the 2013 election.

The partisan cynic might counter by saying the pollster concerned has been involved in Labor Party campaigns, but this doesn’t diminish the veracity of the basic point that the GST isn’t harmless, and that raising it further will only cause greater harm. It has been estimated an average family could be worse off in the order of thousands of dollars annually.

As I have said many times, it is best not to go down the European path by letting the GST‑increase genie out of the bottle and it seems the voters know this, too.

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Is a sugar tax such a bad idea?

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Nick Cater takes down the ‘sucrophobes’ in his column ($) in The Australian today:

The first thing that should trouble us about the sucrophobes is the simplicity of their proposal. The social, psychological and physical causes of obesity are complex. Unwanted kilos of body mass do not succumb to miracle cures, raising the price of sugar ­included.

Equally revealing is the fact its advocates seldom talk about revenue. It suggests their proposal is not principally about collecting money but has a far more lofty purpose.

Rest assured, the Obesity Policy Coalition tells us in its submission to the government’s tax review, a sugar-sweetened beverage tax would raise “considerable revenue” while increasing demand for water and low-fat milk. Yet neither proposition is backed by evidence; we are expected to take them on trust.

Fat tax proposals, like so many public policy blunders, are driven by the imperative to do something in the face of an imagined crisis. We have been struck by an “obesity pandemic”, we are told. Health costs are not just rising, they are “spiralling out of control”.

The sucrophobes back their arguments with scareynomics — the use of terrifyingly big numbers in an attempt to persuade us that their absurd proposal makes ­perfect economic sense.

If we are to believe a recent report from Obesity Australia, for example, obesity costs Australia $58 billion, a figure equivalent to 40 per cent of the health budget.

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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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Another lazy tax grab

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Latika Bourke at the Sydney Morning Herald reports on a Labor commitment to increase the tobacco excise if elected:

Labor is planning to raise taxes on cigarettes if elected to pay for the so-called Gonski education reforms, potentially pitting a slug on smokers against any Coalition plan to increase the GST rate or impose it on fresh food.

Sources have told Fairfax Media that the federal opposition is considering another round of three 12.5 per cent increases, which sources said would net $40 billion over 10 years.

The increase would push up the cost of cigarettes in Australia to well beyond $1 per stick, making Australia’s tobacco among the most expensive in the world.

This is mindless policy from an opposition that has offered very little by way of substantive ideas for reform. Instead of engaging in a thorough discussion about taxes, revenue, spending, and the size of government Labor has opted for rank intellectual laziness in the form of yet another attack on smokers.

On the plus side, Labor has handed the Liberal Party a great opportunity to stand up for its values.

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