Turnbull’s Troubles: Why Re-Election is No Longer a Formality

In recent weeks, Malcolm Turnbull and his Coalition Government has had its share of struggles. Numerous things have gone against the Government, from ministerial troubles to policy agenda setbacks. Not so long ago, it appeared that re-election for the Turnbull Government was a mere formality. Fresh from a successful leadership ballot which saw Malcolm Turnbull become the new leader of the Liberal Party and therefore the new Prime Minister, Turnbull initially enjoyed a great deal of popularity, particularly in contrast to Labor leader Bill Shorten, who was struggling with near-record low approval ratings. Yet this initial wave of popularity now seems a distant memory, with Newspoll recently polling the Coalition and Labor at 50/50 on a two party preferred basis.

For all the talk of a fresh, policy-based outlook toward governance, the Coalition so far been found wanting. This lack of policy leadership has been exemplified by the ongoing debate around Labor’s recently introduced policy regarding negative gearing, as well as in the broader debate of taxation and fiscal policy. In terms of taxation policy, Turnbull and the Coalition have ceded ground to Labor. Having put forth few ideas apart from recently rejecting a GST rise after a prolonged silence on the subject, Labor have taken the policy initiative on this front. Labor Treasurer Chris Bowen, by contrast, has released several significant policies, including changes to negative gearing, capital gains tax and superannuation concession tightening among other measures. Malcolm Turnbull has responded to the negative gearing measure by arguing that it would be a ‘wrecking ball’ for house prices and would hurt ‘mum and dad’ investors trying to get ahead. Yet his own Assistant Treasurer Kelly O’Dwyer, went on television arguing the opposite, before retracting her statements shortly after, a gaffe which highlights the lack of a consistent narrative from the government on this issue.

Other setbacks, such as the resignation of ministers, have also not helped the image of the Coalition. Only a few weeks ago, Stuart Robert, then the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs among other portfolios, was forced to resign after it was revealed he had attended a signing ceremony between Australian company Nimrod Resources and a Chinese firm. A conflict of interest arose after it came to light that the chairman of Nimrod Resources, Paul Marks, was a prominent donor to the Liberal Party. This resignation followed the resignation of two other frontbenchers, Jamie Briggs and Mal Brough, forcing Malcolm Turnbull into a second cabinet reshuffle only a few months into his time as Prime Minister.

In the government’s favour is the fact that there are still several months before an election has to be called. Turnbull also stills holds a significant lead over Shorten as preferred Prime Minister and the Coalition is still, albeit narrowly, the preferred party of government over Labor in most polls. For this to continue, however, Malcolm Turnbull and the Liberal Party will have to reverse this state of affairs, and quickly. A consistent and significant policy agenda will need to be developed in order to effectively counter the policy measures being put forth by Labor. The upcoming federal Budget will prove to be crucial in this regard. Turnbull will need to be bold and differentiate himself significantly from Labor as well as from the Abbott leadership which he successfully challenged. Unpopular budgetary measures were, after all, the reason Abbott was challenged and ultimately overthrown as leader. A repeat budgetary performance from Turnbull in current circumstances may well cost him the election, an almost unthinkable proposition when he took over as Prime Minister only a few months ago.

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Apple vs the FBI: The Privacy and Security Debate

The debate about balancing privacy with security is a fundamental debate to all democracies. In recent years, with the growing prevalence of technology such as smartphones and computers to the lives of citizens, this debate has taken on new parameters and significance. In recent days and weeks, this debate has again ignited with the current standoff between Apple CEO Tim Cook and the FBI. The standoff arises from a dispute between the two over access to the phone of the San Bernardino terrorist Syed Farook, who killed fourteen people in December.

The debate is a complex one, with this particular case potentially setting a precedent for similar cases in the future. These ramifications stretch beyond the United States, with reports that the Chinese government, were the FBI to prevail with their demands, would ask for similar access from multinational companies to their products. Some Australian technology journalists, such as Ben Grubb, believe that the ongoing case in America will also have implications for Australians’ privacy in the not-to-distant future.

On the one hand, civil libertarians, along with Apple, argue that the FBI has no right to demand access to phones. According to people on this side of the argument, the demands which the FBI is making of Apple is a violation of the American constitution. Civil libertarians cite the fourth amendment, which is designed to prevent unwarranted seizures and searches of personal property by government, as a defense against the demands of the FBI. Tim Cook, in a memo sent around to Apple employees on Monday, argued that the current case between the company and the FBI would set a precedent against hundreds of millions of people, putting their privacy in jeopardy. In the memo, Cook also argues that in order fulfil the FBI’s demands, his company would have to reconfigure the encryption on all iPhones, claiming that current iPhones could not be accessed by the FBI even if they wanted to.

On the other hand, there are obvious concerns pertaining to national security. Access to the phone of a known terrorist, from the perspective of the FBI, would allow access to potentially crucial evidence of acts of terrorism. In a press release on the FBI’s website, director James Comey argued that Apple should allow, with a warrant, a means for the FBI to access phones in special circumstances such as that of the San Bernardino terrorist, citing that it was in the public interest for Apple to do so. According to a Pew Research poll released on Monday, a majority of Americans side with the FBI on this issue. The poll results show 51% agreeing with the FBI that Apple should allow access to the San Bernardino terrorists’ phone, compared to 38% who disagreed with the FBI.

One of the more interesting points about this case is the manner in which Apple has chosen to resist the FBI’s demands. In terms of major multinational companies, Apple is an outlier in taking this course of action. Other major companies, such as Facebook, are more accommodating of the FBI’s demands. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, while expressing sympathy for Apple and Tim Cook, stated that “If we have opportunities to basically work with the government to make sure there are not terrorist attacks, obviously we are going to take those opportunities.” Meanwhile, Microsoft founder Bill Gates also took the side of the FBI. In his opinion, Apple should work alongside the FBI to assist in the case of the San Bernardino terrorist. It is also worth noting that Apple has unlocked iPhones for the FBI in previous instances. According to a report from the Daily Beast, Apple has unlocked iPhones in at least 70 cases in the past. In a similar case involving a terrorists’ phone in New York, Apple acknowledged in a statement that it had the capacity to unlock the phone, contrary to previous claims it had made, including those in the memo sent around the company on Monday. The company argued, however, that unlocking the phone would cause reputational and economic harm to the company, despite Apple having unlocked many phones previously.

The nature of the technology involved, as well as the competing interests of a federal agency, a private company and private citizens highlight the complexity of this debate. Arguments in favour of both privacy and security have merits, yet these interests must be balanced out, dependent on context and situation. A backdoor for a federal security agency such as the FBI to be able to unlock any phone and compromise the privacy of any citizen is of course undesirable. However, a situation where a security agency cannot access necessary evidence against a slain terrorist that is overwhelmingly in the public interest, especially in a case such as that of the San Bernardino terrorist, is not desirable either.

The Scarce Commission Findings and the Case for Nuclear Power

On Monday, the Scarce Royal Commission released its preliminary findings into nuclear power for South Australia. The findings, among other things, suggest that there is a significant positive fiscal case for accepting nuclear waste storage in South Australia. According to estimates in the report, accepting nuclear waste could net the state an average of $5.6 billion in its first 30 years of operation. In addition to this, the report finds that there would be an additional economic benefit in excess of two billion dollars for the following 43 years. The report also looked at options such as nuclear electricity generation, domestic processing and manufacture and expansion of uranium mining. However, the economic benefits for all three of these options were considerably weaker and not viable in the short term in the way a nuclear storage facility would be.

Though the initial findings of the report have been welcomed by many, there are some South Australians who are unconvinced about the benefits of nuclear waste storage for the state. The most vocal of these critics include the South Australian Greens as well as various environmental and anti-nuclear groups. Greens MLC Mark Parnell was dismissive of the findings, claiming that the report does not take into account the various costs of processing nuclear material, shipping nuclear waste to Australia as well as the cost of infrastructure. He claimed that the report was biased and “all about the dump”. Locals from the proposed site for the facility in South Australia’s Kimba region are also currently opposed to any such facility.

The economic lifeline that storing nuclear waste as well as from related industries is simply too important for South Australia to dismiss outright. It is no secret that South Australia is in a precarious economic position and has performed worse than other Australian states for a long time now. According to the findings of the Scarce Commission, the windfall from a nuclear storage facility could amount to over five billion dollars a year for several decades, or the equivalent to one-third of the current revenue the government takes in yearly, which is approximately 16 billion dollars. For an economy like that of South Australia, which is struggling to transition from the mining boom as well as the imminent closure of major manufacturing plants, nuclear storage revenue would grant the local economy some much-needed stability and revenue. Premier Jay Weatherill has, encouragingly, hinted tentatively at support for a nuclear storage facility, according to SA Labor insiders. This is despite opposition from federal Labor leader Bill Shorten, as well as much of the political Left in Australia.

It is important to re-iterate that these are only the preliminary findings. The full findings of the report will not be released until May. Even once the full findings are released, an extensive and robust debate in the community will need to occur before anything is finalised. As Commissioner Kevin Scarce states in the report, a bipartisan political approach as well as broad community support is required in order to make a nuclear storage facility in South Australia a reality. The findings released so far, however, are clearly encouraging in terms of exploring options related to nuclear power.

Why South Australia Must Avoid Following NSW’s Lockout Laws

One week ago, Matt Barrie, the chief executive of Freelancer.com wrote an extensive piece on LinkedIn which was scathing of the effects of the controversial lockout laws in NSW, introduced in 2014. The post quickly went viral, being viewed almost one million times and trending all over social media in Australia. Following Barrie’s post on LinkedIn, the debate surrounding NSW’s lockout laws has once again come to the fore. Barrie’s post comes at a time where the laws are up for an independent review, having been introduced back in 2014 following a spate of deaths and assaults in Sydney’s CBD.

The statistics put forth by Barrie in his post are damning. From the years 2012-2015, foot traffic in important CBD streets such as King’s Cross and Oxford Street had been reduced by 84%, according to a report commissioned by the City of Sydney council. This is in addition to a 60% reduction in foot traffic from 2010-2012 which occurred from a previous tightening of regulations. The result of this was a 40% reduction in trade for businesses in the vicinity of the CBD. Importantly, the 1:30am lockout prevents a ‘secondary peak’ of business between 3-4 am in the morning. As a result, bars and clubs are missing out on hours of trade each Friday and Saturday, having a devastating effect on their businesses. According to Barrie, the City of Sydney’s report has also employed statistical tricks to help present their side of the argument. In order to justify claims that business growth was continuing despite the lockouts, the report added in additional precincts outside the CBD in order to prop up the numbers of businesses trading compared to previous reports.

In reply to Barrie’s post, the Premier of New South Wales, Mike Baird, took to Facebook to present his side of the case. One of the main arguments which Baird made was to cite that assaults in King’s Cross had been reduced by 60% since the laws were introduced two years ago. In his post, Baird also refuted claims that the laws had a negative impact on trade and businesses. He did this by claiming that the amount of small bars in the CBD had doubled since the introduction of the measures.

Following Baird’s post, the Director of New South Wales’ Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, Don Weatherburn, came out publicly to state that Baird misled with his use of statistics in his Facebook post. For example, Weatherburn argues that there was already a significant downward trend in alcohol-related assaults going back to 2008. Comparing numbers from prior to 2014 and after 2014 doesn’t particularly work for this reason, he said. Adjusting for the downward trend, overall assaults were down by around 45% in King’s Cross and approximately 20% in the CBD overall, Weatherburn stated.

This is not to dismiss the importance of tackling alcohol-fuelled violence, however. Clearly it is an important issue, and one which needs to be acknowledged and dealt with in some capacity. A blanket restriction on trading hours, however, is not the answer. A broader cultural shift in the drinking culture in Australia is required. The nightlife in European cities shows how this can occur without imposing more regulation. A more local example is the case of Melbourne, which quickly dropped lockout laws after trialling them in 2008. In this example, the laws actually led to more assaults in the hours before the 2am lockout time. Lockout laws, therefore, as well as being prohibitive to traders in the CBD, are not a guarantee of reduced rates of violence.

 For South Australians, the results of the lockout laws in New South Wales should prove to be a cautionary tale. As it is, South Australia’s economy is among the worst in the country, with unemployment currently at 7.2 percent. If South Australia were to follow the lockout law model of New South Wales and also potentially Queensland, it is almost inevitable that this rate would rise as businesses close and overall late-night trade in the CBD is hampered. Lockout laws would also go against Labor’s vision of revitalising the CBD. After all, one of the main reasons for building the revamped Adelaide Oval, was the flow-on effect to nearby restaurants and bars. Restricting trade and opportunities for potential customers heading into the CBD after a sporting event or concert at the Oval is surely contrary to this vision. We have already seen the effects of the lockout laws on nightlife in New South Wales. South Australia, for the sake of its already ailing economy, must not follow suit.

Book Review: ‘Open Letter’

Book Review: ‘Open Letter: On Blasphemy, Islamophobia and the True Enemies of Free Expression’ by Stephane Charbonnier (Charb)

‘Open Letter’ is a manifesto written by Stephane Charbonnier, also known as ‘Charb’ which had been written at the beginning of 2015. In a tragic twist, the infamous attack of the offices of Charlie Hedbo by Islamist terrorists would occur just a few days after he had finalised his manifesto. One year on from the attack, his manifesto has now been released and translated into English. Though it was written prior to the Charlie Hebdo attack in which Charb lost his life, the manifesto is even more important and relevant in the aftermath of the attack.

The manifesto begins with an insightful foreword by Adam Gopnik of the New Yorker. The foreword does a fine job of outlining the context which Charlie Hebdo worked in; part of a long-standing tradition of direct, sometimes crude satire in stark contrast to the generally refined and reserved discourse of France. Charlie Hebdo, for its part, confronts and engages in issues and debates in a way other French publications simply do not do. It mocks and satires religious fundamentalism in all forms, regardless of what religion it is based from. This background is important and sets the context for the rest of Charb’s manifesto.

One of the main themes of the book is a defense of the work produced by Charlie Hebdo. At many points throughout Charb’s career as a cartoonist and eventually editor-in-chief at the magazine, Charlie Hebdo was heavily criticised, sued on multiple occasions and occasionally attacked. Among the most frequent accusations levelled against Charlie Hebdo, especially in recent years, was the charge of Islamophobia, one which Charb vehemently refutes in Open Letter. According to critics of the magazine, the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo are Islamophobic, having a particular prejudice towards the religion of Islam, and by extension, people of the Muslim faith. Charb argues that not only does the evidence show that his magazine fearlessly satires and mocks all religions, but that the whole notion of ‘Islamophobia’ is a nonsensical idea conjured up by middle-class, nominally ‘progressive’ commentators. According to Charb, the idea of Islamophobia is an inherently patronising and discriminatory one, as it implies that those of Muslim faith are incapable of handling satire and criticism. The insistence of these middle-class commentators and intellectuals to conflate ridicule of religious extremists, as Charlie Hebdo does, with an attack on the religion and all its adherents is also an alarming attack on free speech, from his perspective.

In the years leading up to the Charlie Hebdo attacks and especially since then, the magazine has gained notoriety among some international commentators who do not place the form of satire Charlie Hebdo produces in its necessary cultural context. Charb also spends part of the manifesto explaining where the magazine actually stands in the broader cultural and political context of France, particularly towards the end. This section of the manifesto explains just how much pressure, not only from society but also from France’s legal system Charlie Hebdo operates under. The magazine has been subject to countless lawsuits, its cartoonists threatened with criminal charges relating to hate speech as well as physical threats, all for merely drawing cartoons. When placed into this context, the reaction against Charlie Hebdo is shown to be utterly absurd.

Open Letter is an important and worthwhile read, both for those who support Charlie Hebdo as well as for its critics. The manifesto is an intelligent, humorous and insightful window into the worldview of Charlie Hebdo and of Charb, showing a depth of thought and nuance many critics do not credit the magazine and Charb with. It raises challenging questions and perspectives on issues of free speech, Islamophobia and religious satire and is well worth a read for anyone interested in these issues, regardless of their opinion of the magazine Charlie Hebdo.

Holocaust Memorial Day: Why we must not stand by hatred

The 27th January marked the annual international Holocaust Memorial Day. On this day, the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau occurred. It is as important as ever to acknowledge the Holocaust, for numerous reasons. Firstly, there are fewer and fewer survivors of the Holocaust who are still with us today. In the not too distant future, they will have all passed on, and with them, people who can personally refute and counter allegations that the Holocaust did not occur or was exaggerated. Secondly, and closely related, a continual awareness of the crimes of the Holocaust is necessary in order to combat antisemitism in the modern day. Fittingly, the theme of this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day is ‘Don’t Stand By’. This slogan has more relevance than ever, not only in commemorating the event itself but also in combating rising anti-Semitism throughout the world.

Unfortunately, antisemitism is still as prevalent as ever, and in many places around the world is on the increase. In Europe, the problem of antisemitism is as widespread as it has ever been. The rate of attacks on the European Jewish population is rising significantly. These attacks have been particularly notable in countries such as France, especially in the wake of last year’s attack on a kosher supermarket in Paris. Anti-Semitic incidents have risen by over 80% in France in 2015 in comparison to 2015. As a result, a record number of European Jews have emigrated to Israel, citing fears for their safety. In America, hate crimes are disproportionately directed toward the Jewish population. According to FBI statistics for 2014, 60% of reported hate crimes which has an explicitly religious motive were anti-Jewish in nature.

Anti-Israeli and Anti-Jewish sentiment is particularly strong in the Middle East. One particularly disturbing example of this was a video released by Iran’s leader, Ayatollah Khamenei on Holocaust Memorial Day. In the video, the Ayatollah is quoted as follows:

No one in European countries dares to speak up about the Holocaust…while it is not clear whether the core of this matter is reality or not” He then goes on to say “Even if it is a reality, it is not clear how it happened…speaking about the Holocaust and expressing doubts about it is considered a great sin.”

This sort of conspiratorial thinking is not new. Making this sort of argument plays into over-arching ideas of a global conspiracy whereby Jews control world governments and major institutions. Meanwhile, Iran is currently running a Holocaust cartoon competition, a contest where cartoonists try to draw the most viciously mocking depiction of the Holocaust. This contest, by the way, is sponsored by the Iranian government.

The issue of anti-Semitism in Australia, though not as pronounced as in Europe, is still occurring too often. As is the case through most of the world, instances of anti-Semitic discrimination have risen since the escalation of the conflict between Israel and Palestine during 2014. Many of the most violent incidents since this escalation have used grievances in relation to this conflict as justification for violence. As well as violent incidents, within Australian universities anti-Jewish sentiment also made a resurgence. Far-left political movements such as the Socialist Alternative frequently equate the state of Israel, and by extension Jewish students, as being proponents of genocide.

The examples above of sharply increased incidents of anti-Jewish hate crimes throughout Europe and America as well as the incidents which occurred in Australia highlight the ongoing problem which is anti-Semitic discrimination. Other forms of discrimination, such as anti-Muslim or homophobic discrimination, are rightly condemned. It is time we treated anti-Semitic abuse similarly, lest Australia goes down the path of Europe and America in terms of anti-Jewish discrimination.

A Few Thoughts: Australia Day

On Australia Day, our national day of celebration, it is important to take time to reflect on just what makes Australia the great country it is. By most metrics, particularly socio economic ones, Australia is among the leading countries in the world. Australians enjoy one of the highest average life expectancies, averaging a life expectancy of over 82 years. In terms of average GDP, Australia also stacks up well in comparison to the rest of the world, at a figure of approximately $43,000 per person. From this standpoint, Australians enjoy a standard of living which is among the best in the world. Unlike Europe and to a lesser extent the United States, Australia has for the most part a positive economic outlook going forward, despite challenges such as the transition away from the mining boom.

Australian society enjoys a level of stability and cohesion which is the envy of virtually every other nation on the planet. An individual in Australia has the opportunity and freedom to live however they wish to do so. Our egalitarian national character emphasises equality among people, regardless of status or economic standing. Thanks to this egalitarianism, Australia is less vulnerable to the radical class divides of nations such as the United States or the United Kingdom. The stability of Australian society is no more evident than when Australia’s political system and institutions are compared to many European nations or America. Our constitutional monarchy, for example, ensures that our political system does not concentrate power in the hands of an individual leader in the manner of the American republican system or other equivalent systems throughout Europe. Extreme far-left and far-right parties have virtually no representation in the Australian parliamentary system, unlike in many democracies throughout Europe, where these elements are becoming more and more influential, often to the detriment of their overall politics.

To be sure, there are challenges which Australian society still needs to contend with. For example, racial relations within Australian society, though improving all the time, can still improve further. Stan Grant, reporter for Sky News and Guardian Australia columnist, eloquently pointed out these issues recently during a debate at the Ethics Centre. Debates such as these are of course necessary and important. However, in my opinion, Australia Day should be, primarily, a day of celebration, of acknowledging all that is great about Australia. Calls to rename Australia Day to ‘Invasion Day’, for example, as a means of acknowledging the nation’s troubled past in relation to its indigenous population, while well-intentioned, are misguided and ultimately counter-productive and divisive. Rather than creating a sense of cohesion and community toward solving the genuine issues of the present, initiatives such as these would do little apart from create a fixation on the past. Acknowledging history is of course important. However, concrete actions in the present by government and civil society to address issues such as the gaps in Indigenous life expectancy and education are more useful in the long run than symbolic actions such as changing the name of Australia Day to Invasion Day.