Freeing the executive to spend our money

Great piece by IPA research fellow Simon Breheny in the Sydney Morning Herald today, on the federal government’s Financial Framework Legislation Amendment Bill, which gives the executive extraordinary new spending powers:

It is a basic tenet of parliamentary democracy that the decision to spend public money is made by the parliament.

The English Civil War and the French Revolution were sparked by this fundamental principle: when the executive wants money, it needs the consent of representatives of the governed.

But an obscure bill passed by the Federal Parliament turns this principle on its head.

The most depressing part is this: the bill was passed with support across the parliament. As Simon writes,

One after another our elected representatives got up to raise serious concerns with a bill they knew to be flawed. And one after another they voted for its passage.

But the most bizarre player in all of this is the Greens. One can at least understand the positions of the ALP and the Coalition, who both support the school chaplaincy program. But the Greens completely object to the idea of school chaplains, have never supported the program and still passed legislation purportedly designed to save it.

One can only assume they are in favour of executive overreach, no matter the issue.

Read the whole thing here.

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Leveson, democracy and free speech

The UK’s Leveson Inquiry started as a serious investigation into phone hacking and police corruption. Sure, it was always something of a show-trial. The actual investigation is being conducted by real police who have laid real charges. But Leveson has now completely descended into farce, as I wrote in the Drum earlier this week:

what was a serious inquiry has devolved into a strange sort of puritanism. Participants are being judged against ethical rules unheard of before Leveson convened. For a newspaper to back a political party is apparently a breach of these novel rules. And friendship between politician and proprietor is outrageous. The phone-hacking affair no longer has anything to do with phone-hacking. It’s trying to make scandals out of the basic practices of representative democracy.

Brendan O’Neill has an excellent piece on the same issue, also at the Drum, when he writes that the inquiry “become a purveyor of tittle-tattle, a peerer into people’s private lives, a tabloid-style gossip chamber in which journalists and lawyers gather to swap stories about the ‘country suppers’ and text-messaging habits of the rich and powerful.”

But the best statement on the Leveson Inquiry remains this, by Michael Gove, UK Education Secretary, who strongly and passionately asserted the case for freedom of speech against sceptical questioning.

Lord Justice Leveson, it turns out, does not like this critique of his inquiry, as the Daily Mail explains.

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Free press more important than “editorially independent” press

John Roskam in the Australian Financial Review today makes an important point about the debate over Gina Rinehart’s bid for seats on the board of Fairfax:

There is something more important than fair and balanced reporting – and that’s free reporting. Let’s be absolutely clear.

Swan’s “fair and balanced” reporting has never existed, doesn’t exist and never will exist. Fairness is entirely in the eye of the beholder. It’s a travesty of the historical record to claim that democracy needs a fair and balanced media.

Editorial independence doesn’t guarantee “fairness”. All that editorial independence means is that editors and journalists get to express their bias without interference from the owner of the company. The requirement that reporting be “fair and balanced” is a recipe for political manipulation and for the erosion of freedom of speech.

A free media means neither the government nor government-appointed censors can tell the media what it can do. And a free media means politicians don’t decide who gets to own newspapers. And a free media certainly means politicians don’t get to decide how newspaper owners run their company.

You can have a fair media or a free media. You can’t have both.

You can read the whole thing here.

The IPA’s Sinclair Davidson also wrote in The Conversation earlier this week that “Fairfax Is Broke And Dying Before Our Eyes“.

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Government MP imposes a “social licence” on the media … whatever that is

This is how far down the rabbit hole we’ve travelled. Steve Gibbons, a government MP for the electorate of Bendigo, told parliament on Tuesday that the media “has lost its social licence to operate”. His reasons: “socially unacceptable standards of factuality and veracity” and “a failure to distinguish between factual news reporting and editorial opinion”. Gibbons even thinks “falling circulations” are a reason that this “social licence” has expired.

So what on earth is a social licence? The concept of a social licence began as an attack on mining companies but is now used to criticise any industry some people don’t like. It has the added benefit of being completely vague and indeterminate. We don’t have newspaper licencing in Australia, but Gibbons reckons there’s a more ephemeral, communal, otherworldly form of “licencing” with conditions that include the separation of fact from opinion and strong circulation. It is, simply, nonsense. A society that believes freedom of speech and freedom of the press are values worth defending does not condition those values on whether circulation is going up or down.

Nonetheless, Gibbons has decided that the licence has been breached. His proposed sanction is unsurprising. He calls for a regulator to control “news media behaviour” – in other words, the Finkelstein media inquiry proposal. He’s not the only member of the government who has called for the same. Joel Fitzgibbon – the government’s chief whip – wrote in the Australian in March that “Letting our media police themselves has been a mistake.”

The Communications Minister Stephen Conroy is yet to respond to the Finkelstein Inquiry, but says a response is imminent. The upheaval in the print media of the last week will throw that response into flux. While the winds of technological change are altering the press forever, it’s hard to fathom that the government is considering whether to impose one of the most archaic attacks on freedom of the press seen in recent decades.

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Should Voting Be Compulsory?

In the Herald Sun on Sunday, the IPA’s Lydia Bevege made the case for voluntary voting:

Australian democracy is not enhanced by forcing these people to express an opinion on parties and candidates they dislike.

Rejecting all candidates on the ballot paper and staying at home on election day is a legitimate democratic expression that Australians do not have the right to exercise. We are all forced to vote because other people have decided that we ought to be involved in the political process.

Read the whole thing here.

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Racist on a train

In The Drum in April I talked about a 21-year-old British student who was sentenced to 56 days jail for a few racist tweets. Well, now a London woman has been sentenced to 21 weeks jail for being racist on a train.

What these two people said was disgusting, no doubt about it. They were both extremely drunk. But the idea that you can be sent to jail – and for such a long time – simply for being offensive is repugnant to the rule of law and freedom of speech. It is excessive and illiberal.

And with the rise of the racial and religious vilification laws in Australia we’re travelling in that direction. The right not to be offending is trampling our right to freedom of speech.

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Ricketson on the Finkelstein report

Ray Finkelstein, who led the Indepedent Media Inquiry, has said he will not talk to the media about his proposal for a statutory authority to regulate the news and opinion. You can see his statement to that effect here.

But in the last few weeks, his co-author, the University of Canberra academic Matthew Ricketson has come out swinging, with a speech at Melbourne University and a column in the Age over the weekend. And he thinks the reporting has been unfair.

Yet it’s not clear Ricketson understands the significance of the proposals in the report he helped write. How else to explain this claim, in his Age column, that his proposal “differs from the existing system in only one key aspect, namely government would fund the News Media Council”?

That’s not true. Not at all.

Yes, the News Media Council would be government funded. But it would also be compulsory. It would have the power to censor. It would regulate every website and newspaper and email. Even FreedomWatch would fall within its regulatory arms. It would have the power to force publication of its own orders – and if anybody refused, they could go to jail. These powers are all new: the Australian Press Council has none of them. If a newspaper disagrees with a Press Council ruling, it can leave. Sure, it might be costly to do so (in reputation, and by increasing the risk of heavier-handed government regulation) but it is not legally compulsory to comply with the council’s decisions.

In his Melbourne University address, Ricketson claimed that the report “categorically ruled out any return to a licensing regime”. That’s not quite true either. As I pointed out in a briefing paper published days after the report was released, Finkelstein doesn’t appear to understand what a licensing regime actually is. In the report, he provides a definition of “licensing” which matches his proposals almost exactly. There is a great deal of conceptual confusion in his report, and licensing is one of the key confusions.

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Obama Beats Bush In Assault On Civil Rights

My Sunday Age and Sun-Herald column today discusses how the left have gone silent on Obama’s atrocious civil liberties record.

Obama has undermined more individual rights, and hoarded more presidential power, than Bush ever did. It’s not that he has simply failed to roll back Bush’s anti-terror excesses. Although that is true, as well. It’s that Obama has trumped them. More than 10 years after the September 11 attacks, the White House is still amassing extra security powers.

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Convergence: dangerously workable

In the ABC’s Drum, I look at the troubling freedom of speech issues raised by the Convergence Review:

One pregnant sentence in the Convergence Review says, “It is important to note that the current Australian Press Council regime where members can opt out or reduce funding is not an acceptable situation.”

When the review’s draft terms of reference were released in 2010, nobody expected proposals to regulate ‘fairness’ in newspapers would form a core part of the review’s final report.

And that sentence’s claim – that voluntary press regulation is unacceptable, and regulation is necessary – undercuts the review’s repeated assertions that its “underlying approach [is] in favour of deregulation”.

Read more here.

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