Anyone else disturbed by the tone of the anti-terror debate?

Is anyone else disturbed by the tone of the anti-terror discussion? We have the PM calling for heads to roll at the ABC because a guy who was acquitted of terror offences and has since renounced his support for jihad asks some pointed questions on Q & A; the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection not only wanting the right to unilaterally strip citizenship from Australians he suspects of fighting with ISIS but declaring he doesn`t want the courts second guessing him; and the Leader of the Opposition welcoming the deaths of those Australians fighting with ISIS.

It seems that in the rush to combat terror we are surrendering the very things that make us strong and rushing headlong into the abyss of hatred, censorship and lawlessness that mark illiberal societies. This is not the time to waver in our commitment to the rule of law, the protection of freedoms, and the primacy of love but to assert them more strongly than ever.

When someone publicly questions government policy the appropriate response is not to shut down debate by declaring he has no right to be here and then shooting the messenger; it is rather to provide an intellectually robust defence of policy. The free contestability of ideas is one of the hallmarks of liberal democracy.

When citizens join a conflict we oppose and engage in murderous acts, the answer is not to disenfranchise them by the uncontested fiat of a politician, thereby making them another country’s problem, but to prosecute them in a court of law. History suggests any step away from this principle inevitably results in acts of tyranny.

And when anyone, let alone one of our own, dies on the battlefield, even fighting on the side of our enemy, surely we should be filled with grief. I am reminded of an old Jewish story of the exodus. The Red Sea has parted to allow the Israelites through, then closed in on the pursuing Egyptians. The Israelites are celebrating wildly, free at last from their captivity, when someone notices God isn’t there. “Where is he?” Moses asks. To which the archangel replies, “The Lord is over in the corner weeping, for many of his children died today.”

In the face of terror I want to say that I trust in the rule of law, the freedom of speech and religion, and respect for the humanity of all, even my enemy. These are the things that make us strong. Let us not surrender them.

Did anyone else think government spending was going down?

With all the hype about “budget repair” I had made the assumption that government spending was going down. Turns out I am wrong. At the same time that our government is demanding we slash and burn things like foreign aid, it is planning on spending $14 billion dollars more next year than it did this year,  and projects that by the year 2018-19 it will be spending $79 billion more than it  spends at present.

budget 2015

Considered as a proportion of our national income spending stays relatively steady at historically high levels.

This makes a mockery of the claim that foreign aid had to be cut in order to “repair the budget”.  The truth is we just prefer to spend the money on ourselves.  There is a word to describe this, and it’s not “fiscal responsibility”. It’s “greed”.

All that campaigning and the aid program is still savaged. Did we achieve anything?

Having spent more than a decade of my life campaigning for increases in both the quantity and the quality of the Australian aid program, it has been devastating to see the aid budget slashed by more than 20%, the greatest single decrease in the history of the program.

I have travelled to a number of countries with large numbers of people living in extreme poverty and seen the amazing impacts that well targeted aid can have. Because of Australian aid children who otherwise would have died before their fifth birthday have not only survived but flourished; women who would have died in pregnancy have been kept safe; communities that would have suffered continual sickness and even death due to dirty drinking water have found access to clean water sources. I have met these people and heard their stories. Aid is without doubt one of the best investments we can make and to cut it in order to fund more spending on ourselves seems criminal.

So was the campaigning worth it? Aid levels are returning to what they were decades ago as a proportion of national income. Did all that campaigning achieve anything?

I think it did. First, for a good decade under both John Howard and Kevin Rudd the aid program increased substantially. Even though it’s now fallen back to earlier levels the increases above trend during this period were in the vicinity of $16 billion. That’s a lot of good.

Second, there is a far greater awareness of what makes for good aid amongst our politicians. The campaigns by Make Poverty History and Micah Challenge saw many politicians getting asked questions about aid by their constituents, which drove them to find answers, and many are now much more engaged.

Third, there have been many advances in the quality of our aid program. For example, when we started campaigning a decade or more ago a lot of Australian aid was “tied”, which meant we gave money to countries but required them to spend it on services and products from Australia. This, along with many other deficient practices, has been abandoned.

A perusal of the history of changes in the aid program reminds me not to despair. Since the Whitlam government came to power in 1972 there have been 13 years in which the volume of aid was cut. As the chart shows this happened under both Coalition and Labor governments. Certainly, it doesn’t look like we’ll see any increases under an Abbott government. The budget forecasts further decreases over the next two years and then increases in line with inflation. But we’ve been here before. I remember being berated by Alexander Downer when a group of us suggested the Australian government should increase the aid program, yet just a few years later the Howard government in which Alexander Downer was a minister oversaw some of the most substantial increases in our history.



So yes, the current round of cuts are bitterly disappointing, but now is not the time to give up. We need to keep advocating for more aid and better aid, making sure it stays on the agenda of our politicians and convincing our fellow citizens that money spent on well targeted aid is one of the best things we will ever do together

Who pays too much tax? Probably not you

Put ten Australians in a room and ask them if they pay too much tax and you’re likely to find everyone agreeing, “why yes, I do pay too much tax.” None of us likes paying tax, but are we really paying too much? Here are three ways you can answer that question.

How much should we pay?

At the end of the day we need to pay enough tax to pay for the services we want. At the moment our budget is in the red and looks like staying there permanently unless we either cut services or increase taxes. Personally, I opt for the services, which means collectively we’re not paying enough tax.

How much tax do we pay compared to other high income nations?

It turns out that we pay very low taxes when we compare ourselves to other high income nations. The chart below shows the total tax revenues received by governments as a proportion of national income. As you can see, Australia is right down the lower end of the tax collected. So by this measure, no we are not paying too much tax.


Who should pay taxes?

Earlier this year the Australian Council of Social Services released a paper that shocked me. It showed the total proportion of income that households paid in tax. We’re accustomed to thinking that rich households pay a lot more as a proportion of their income than poor households. It turns out that that is not true. When you consider only income tax, yes the richer you are more you pay, although not nearly as much as people like to think. But when you add indirect taxes, such as the GST, taxes on tobacco, etc, it turns out the tax system is far more flat then we commonly believe. The top 20% of households paid a total of 28% of their income in tax and the bottom 20% of households pay almost as much, 24% of their income goes in tax.


That means that tax rates are roughly equal across Australian households, but that leaves them far from equitable. The top 20% of households live on an average of $2597 per week after tax. The bottom 20% get by on just $409 per week after tax.

So unless you’re in the bottom 20% of households by income lets get rid of the bleating that we pay too much tax.

I haven’t lost my confidence in Gillian Triggs. I have lost my confidence in the PM.

In the last week the Prime Minister has launched a scathing attack on Human Rights Commission President Gillian Triggs, declaring the government has lost confidence in her. He cites two reasons for this:

1) the call for the release of a convicted manslaughterer;
2) the timing of the report into children in detention.

The Prime Minister’s first accusation, that Gillian Triggs displayed incredibly poor judgement in the recommendation that a convicted criminal be released from detention refers to the case of an Indonesian refugee by the name of Basikbasik. In 2000 Basikbasik was convicted of the manslaughter of his wife and sentenced to 7 years in prison. At the conclusion of his term Basikbasik’s visa was cancelled, but he could not be returned to Indonesia because of the likelihood that he would be subject to human rights violations. Nor could he be freely released into the Australian community given the assessment that he posed a risk to members of the community. So 7 1/2 years after his sentence concluded, he remains in immigration detention.

If this is the only information one has, the call of the human rights commission to release and compensate Basikbasik does seem ill founded. But what the Prime Minister neglects to disclose is that the Administrative Appeals Tribunal suggested that the reason Basikbasik would pose a threat of harm was that there was no management plan in place for his rehabilitation and he had no support group within the community. When his case came before the Human Rights Commission it became clear that the government had not considered whether a management plan could be put in place that would mitigate the risk to the community, something they were obligated to do. This meant that according to the law, Basikbasik was being held arbitrarily, which it is not within the power of the government. Moreover, the High Court had established that those who were arbitrarily detained should be compensated when released.

The advice of Commissioner Triggs was simply to apply the law, and for her to have done anything else would have been a dereliction of her responsibility. It may be news to the Prime Minister, but politicians don’t get to decide which laws they will follow and which they will ignore, nor do people surrender their human rights when they commit a crime.

The second accusation against Gillian Triggs is that the children in detention report was politically motivated. The evidence for this is in the timing of the report. Again the Prime Minister is being less than honest. The Human Rights Commission had signalled well in advance that it planned to do a report on children in detention as a 10 year follow-on from the report it produced in 2004. When the time came to commence the inquiry a federal election had been called and the government was in caretaker mode. Gillian Triggs made the decision that it would be inappropriate to commence her inquiry in the middle of an election campaign, and so waited for the campaign to conclude. I don’t see how she can be faulted for this, particularly given the report is highly critical of the previous Labor government.

Not only has the Prime Minister no grounds for losing confidence in Gillian Triggs, but he has been far from honest in the way he has presented his case. I guess it’s easier to do that than to face up to the damning reality that is described in the Forgotten Children report.

I haven’t lost my confidence in Gilllian Triggs. I have lost my confidence in the PM.

Joe Hockey ends the idea that Australia can help make poverty history

Yesterday Treasurer Joe hockey announced that next year’s international aid budget would be slashed by $1 billion. This decision marked much more than the cutting of the aid budget. It marked the end of the idea that Australia could play a significant role in bringing extreme poverty to a halt.

In the last decade a revolution occurred in the Australian aid program. Inspired by the Millennium Development Goals, first the Howard government then the Rudd government started to increase both the volume of aid Australia offered to the world’s poorest countries and the quality of the aid. We started to measure our aid program by its effectiveness in things like reducing child mortality, improving people’s access to clean drinking water, and halting the spread of infectious diseases.

For years Australia had held an “aspirational” goal of lifting its aid program to 0.7% of our national income. But “aspirational” really meant “ignored”. In 2007 that changed when Kevin Rudd announced the ALP would lift aid to 0.5% of national income by the year 2015. The Coalition embraced the same goal and we embarked on an era of bipartisan commitment to substantial increases in the quality and the quantity of Australian aid.

In the last couple of years this commitment stumbled. The target date for reaching 0.5% was pushed out by a few years, but yesterday Joe hockey brought the idea of achieving this target to an end. Not only did he announce that aid would be slashed, but the principle he articulated was that aid would be returned to the levels it was when it was last funded out of surplus and that into the future increases would be made in line with the consumer price index. As a result the aid program as a proportion of national income will soon fall to 0.21%, the lowest level in more than 50 years, and will remain parked there.

What a monumental failure! If the past 15 years have shown anything, they’ve shown that well targeted, well-managed aid investments can result in wonderful outcomes. Who can’t be excited by the fact that child mortality rates have plummeted, the number of children in school has risen, income poverty has been slashed, hundreds of millions of people have access to clean drinking water? Australian aid played a part in making that possible.

Yesterday’s announcement did much more than massively reduce the aid program. It marked the end of Australia’s commitment to a growing aid program. It marked the end of the idea that we could help bring extreme poverty to a halt. Apparently we have much more important things to do.

Receive a weekly email of my posts

You have Successfully Subscribed!