Sunday, June 22, 2014

The boats have stopped, but not the protests

The boats may have stopped, but discontent with Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers continues.

Hundreds of Melburnians rallied to protest offshore processing on Manus Island and Nauru as part of World Refugee Day on Sunday.

Last week marked six months since the last boatload of asylum seekers journeyed to Australian shores.  

The Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, Scott Morrison, has remained uncompromising in his tough stance on “illegal arrivals”.  

In a statement he said “the government remains resolute in our determination to stop the boats”.

But the people who gathered in Melbourne’s CBD expressed shame and embarrassment at Australia’s “disgraceful” policies on asylum seekers.

Michael*, 62, said he was upset by existing policies. “I think the government is not representing me as an Australian.  I hate to think what [other nations] think of Australia.”

David, 65, from Beechworth said he was “ashamed of what the Australian government is doing to the most desperate people”.

Dressed in his St Kilda football club scarf, Tom said he was “disgusted with the way refugees are treated”.

He was referring to Australia’s system of detaining asylum seekers, who arrive by boat, in offshore detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru.

Nicole, a 34-year-old barrister, said she believed offshore detention was a “deliberate way of making sure there is no scrutiny” of what goes on in the centres.

Annie, 31, said Australia was breaching international law by putting asylum seekers in offshore detention.

Despite differences in age and origin, protestors shared similar visions about what their preferred asylum seeker policy might involve.

David once marched against former prime minister Malcolm Fraser’s policies, but now supported Mr Fraser’s push for regional processing. 

He said Australia should be using its close connection with Indonesia to develop “proper, efficient and fair” processing in Indonesia to prevent people resorting to unsafe voyages by boat.

But should boats still arrive, Michael supported asylum seekers remaining in community detention while their claims were processed.

Nicole said she had "no issue” with boats coming and that Australia had “plenty of resources”.  Annie agreed: “Australia is a country well positioned to assist others in need and should be doing more."

Tom saw value in sending asylum seekers to regional areas to assist farmers and producers while their claims were processed.  While Beryl, an elderly protestor, said she believed in bringing refugees straight to Australia.

Former Speaker Anna Burke spoke to the crowd disagreeing with her Labor party’s policy to support offshore processing at Manus and Nauru.

“We need to do better,” Ms Burke said.  The issue “should not be a political football”.

“Each asylum seeker that seeks protection should be treated with dignity and humanity and treated as a human being."

Annie said she did not labour under illusions that the Abbott government would heed the views expressed at the rally.

She went to the rally to show her “depth of feeling”.  She believed her attendance demonstrated a commitment beyond merely sending an email or signing a petition.

Joined by her five-year-old twins, Jane, 40, said “no one really acts” on their concerns.  She wanted to publicly “take a stand” to prompt the government into action.

Kaz, 37, said he hoped passers-by would notice the rally and be prompted to ask why people were supporting asylum seekers.

“’Asylum seekers’ is a label we created.  We should call them people fleeing persecution,” said Kaz.

Deputy leader of the Greens, Adam Bandt, also addressed the crowd that marched through the Bourke Street Mall led by MC, Corinne Grant.

*Names of interviewees have been changed.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Salvation Army used Facebook to recruit detention centre support workers

Former Salvation Army support workers at Nauru and Manus detention centres told a Senate inquiry today they were recruited via advertisements on Facebook and did not receive training.

Nicole Judge and Chris Iacono told the Senate inquiry into the February riots at Manus Island detention centre they responded to advertisements on Facebook in September 2012.

Ms Judge wrote in her submission to the inquiry that she was "hired by the Salvation Army without interview or job training".

The Salvation Army used their Humanitarian Mission Services Facebook Page to recruit workers for Manus Island and Nauru processing centres.

An advertisement was posted on November 21 2013 inviting people interested in supporting asylum seekers to respond:

In response to queries posted about requisite qualifications, the administrator of the page wrote that "qualifications would depend on the type of support role and individual circumstances of the applicant".

The post included a 59 second video featuring a Salvation Army employee who stated "it's a once in a life-time opportunity.

"Conditions are tough in Nauru and with anything in life there are positives and negatives.  If anyone's interested in this program I would say go for it."

A longer video was posted on November 20 2013 featuring an HR employee, Phil Donnan, talking about conditions on Manus Island.

"It's hard, it's hot, it's humid and the conditions on the island are quite harsh, difficult and challenging,"Mr Donnan said in the video.

In their submission to the Senate inquiry, The Salvation Army stated "support worker roles typically do not require individuals to have particular skills or experience.

"The Salvation Army maintains that those employees who were engaged in this role were, at all times, adequately skilled to discharge the duties required."

According to The Salvation Army, the duties included providing "sport and recreation activities, facilitating computer and telephone access, operating the kiosks and the provision of basic needs for clients".

Mr Iacono and Ms Judge told the Senate inquiry they spent time talking with and counselling asylum seekers.

Ms Judge told the Senate inquiry "I honestly thought that going into this would be some kind of fun experience".

The Federal Government did not renew The Salvation Army's contract to provide support to asylum seekers following its expiration in February 2014.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Should Geoff Shaw be expelled from the Victorian Parliament?

It's a tough call.

The Labor party thinks he should be expelled; and according to Fairfax reports, so does the former Speaker Ken Smith.

Many Victorians would be glad to see an end to two years of unimpressive manoeuvres by the independent Frankston MP who, by being a lone power-broker in a finely-balanced House, has seemingly forced out a Speaker and a Premier.

But what has Mr Shaw done and does it warrant expulsion from parliament?

Mr Shaw's predicament turns on the use of his electoral car for business purposes. A report by the Ombudsman isolated a handful of occasions on which it was agreed by the parties that the car was used for Mr Shaw's business.

Using the car for commercial purposes is considered a breach of the MPs' code of conduct that says "Members shall accept their prime responsibility is to the performance of their public duty" and will avoid conflicting private interests.
Code of conduct for members: Section 3 of the Members of Parliament (Register of Interests) Act 1978.

3 Code of conduct for Members
(1) It is hereby declared that a Member of the Parliament is bound by the following code of conduct—
(a) Members shall—
(i) accept that their prime responsibility is to the performance of their public duty and therefore ensure that this aim is not endangered or subordinated by involvement in conflicting private interests;
(ii) ensure that their conduct as Members must not be such as to bring discredit upon the Parliament; 
A wilful breach of the code is considered contempt of the Parliament for which the form of punishment can be determined by the House.
9 Failure to comply with Act Any wilful contravention of any of the requirements of this Act by any person shall be a contempt of the Parliament and may be dealt with accordingly and in addition to any other punishment that may be awarded by either House of the Parliament for a contempt of the House of which the Member is a Member the House may impose a fine upon the Member of such amount not exceeding $2000 as it determines.
Mr Shaw says he did not know the car was being used for commercial purposes and he did not give permission to his business partners to use it for business purposes.

Nevertheless, Mr Shaw did nominate his business staff as authorised drivers of his parliamentary vehicle.  

One of the identified uses of the car was for a trip to Warrnambool on 21 February 2011.  When the Ombudsman asked him why he gave his parliamentary vehicle to a business colleague to use to drive to Warrnambool, Mr Shaw could not recall a precise reason.

Mr Shaw completed a logbook entry signing himself as the driver for the 694km private trip (PVT).

Does this example constitute 'wilful contravention' of the code of conduct and does it warrant expulsion? 

The Opposition members of the Privileges Committee believe it does, when combined with other documented examples.  They say that Mr Shaw's "recklessness, careless conduct and complete indifference to his obligations" constitutes wilfulness and that the Ombudsman's report documents examples of this behaviour.

Mr Shaw wrote an impassioned submission to the Privileges Committee stating that "the Ombudsman's Report is based on an inaccurate account of the relevant facts".  

Mr Shaw accused the whistleblowers who brought the original concerns to light of being disaffected former employees one of whom had "resorted to extreme measures of retaliation and extortion".  He said "they chose to take their photos and photocopies to the media to extort me to maximum effect".

Mr Shaw said he has experienced a "trial by media" and had been the subject of an investigation political in nature involving "dirt" and "spite" and "political lynchings".

The whistleblowers have stated their case to the Ombudsman, but were not called to the Privileges Committee.  They stated that Mr Shaw had told them they could use the parliamentary car for Mr Shaw's business purposes:

Charges against Mr Shaw arising from these claims were dropped by the Director of Public Prosecutions in December 2013.

Has Mr Shaw wilfully breached the code of conduct amounting to contempt of the Parliament warranting expulsion?  It is a tough call.  

Certainly, signing over the use of a parliamentary car to business associates, admitting to wrongly signing a log book for the use of the car and accusing whistleblowers of bringing concerns for purposes of retaliation doesn't look good.

Those arguing against expulsion say a dangerous precedent arises if the House can gang-up on a democratically elected independent and cause a by-election.

Alternatively, a by-election does return the power to the people: if they feel the Member has been wrongly punished, they can re-endorse them at the ballot box.

It is open to the Lower House of the Victorian Parliament to make a finding and exact the punishment it sees fit.  The decision in this case is made all the more complex because of its political implications for a government hanging on by one vote.

It has taken two years for the parliament to consider sanctions in this matter.  In the political thunderstorms anticipated in the House this week, let's hope for a break in the clouds and a resolution to this saga.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Abbott's debt message is fortune telling

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has accused Labor of running up $667 billion debt without clarifying this is a treasury projection for a decade in the future.

Mr Abbott posted a Youtube video on Saturday that he described on Twitter as an "update on what the Government is doing to fix Labor's legacy of debt and deficit".

The two and a half minute video opens with Mr Abbott looking directly at the camera saying: "Over six years, Labor ran up a $667 billion debt on the nation's credit card.  Every single month this debt is costing use a billion dollars just to cover the interest bill."

The $667 billion debt figure is in fact a Treasury projection for 2023-24 and was first referred to by the Treasurer Joe Hockey in December's Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook.

Australia's current level of debt is in fact close to $300 billion - and is comparatively low by international standards according to the ABC factcheck.

The MYEFO data is also the source of the claim that we are paying one billion dollars per month in interest.  Projections for 2015-17 support this claim.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

When youth unemployment doesn't add up

In the wholly unsatisfactory Victorian budget estimates, Premier Napthine dodged and ducked questions from the opposition on Melbourne Rail Link, hospital beds and advertising costs.

But his response on youth unemployment figures was an audacious fudging of figures.

During his appearance at the estimates on Tuesday, Mr Napthine was asked why the government had chosen to scrap the Apprenticeship Completion Bonus when Victoria’s youth unemployment is sitting on an Australian high of 20 percent.

Mr Napthine played the numbers and disputed the use of the 20 percent figure.

He said that instead of relying on the youth unemployment rate, it is more useful to use the unemployment ratio – which he claimed is at an Australian low of four percent.

It is certainly more useful for the government to refer to the lower figure, but as an answer to scrutiny on youth unemployment policies, it is cheeky at best.

Unemployment rates are calculated by taking the number of people out of work as a proportion of the labour force – that is, all people available for work.

When examining young people, those in education and not seeking work are not counted in the labour force.

On the other hand, the unemployment ratio is the number of people looking for work as a proportion of the whole population of young people.  The ratio figure is much lower because it includes all of the young people in secondary and tertiary education.

It is fair to say that measuring youth unemployment is complicated by high numbers of people in education or seeking part-time work.

But some experts consider the unemployment ratio too low – which is why youth unemployment is normally talked about in terms of the higher ‘rate’.

Mr Napthine’s federal colleagues made use of the higher rate to criticize the former Gillard-Rudd Labor government in the lead up to the 2013 federal election.

Federal Liberal MP Josh Frydenberg was on the other side of the debate on Q&A last July when he said “for 15- to 19-year-olds who are out there looking for full-time work, we’re at a 15-year high – it’s more than 20 percent”.

Then Minister for Employment Participation Kate Ellis said this was because the Labor government was keeping them in school – a reference to the smaller pool of people being measured and the subsequently high figure.

On Tuesday, Mr Napthine used the same argument as Ms Ellis to challenge the use of the higher unemployment rate. 

Different political parties, same statistical solution to high youth unemployment figures.

Higher numbers of young people remaining in education will push up the unemployment rate as the pool of young people included in the measure shrinks.

But education can be refuge for people unable to find work, or for people who have returned to training in order to secure jobs in a tough market.

Both measurements can distort the picture of youth unemployment, but rather than select the one that best fits the politics, let’s settle on a measure and stick to it.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Questions raised over security firm G4S on Manus

Questions are being raised about the role of security firm G4S in events that left one asylum seeker dead and dozens injured, some seriously, at the Australian detention centre on Manus Island.

As reports of asylum seeker injuries have emerged from Manus Island, it remains unclear whether G4S, locals or police were responsible, and where the injuries were sustained.

SBS Dateline reporter Mark Davis reported late on Tuesday that staff at the Manus Island centre told him that the 'Mike' compound was attacked on Monday night "from the outside".

"I know for sure that many of [those injured] were innocent victims and were savagely beaten... my suspicion is that it is local G4S guards perhaps on some sort of rampage," Davis reported.

Davis said the staff were concerned for their own safety as people wielding sticks entered the detention facility.

G4S security firm had issued a statement on Tuesday claiming asylum seekers had been injured when they had left the detention centre. This follows reports that up to 35 asylum seekers escaped from the facility the previous night, but were recaptured.

Immigration minister Scott Morrison said on Tuesday "at the height of the disturbance [on Monday night], G4S staff withdrew to the internal perimeter, and the PNG police intervened with those transferees who had breached the external perimeter".

It remains unclear whether asylum seekers left the facility on Monday night, or whether detainees were injured while they remained inside the compound.

Many reports have referred to 'locals' entering the compound.  There are also reports that PNG police entered the compound.

Guardian Australia reported on Tuesday that people on Manus Island were alleging PNG police and locals attacked the detainees inside the centre.

Meanwhile, ABC's Papua New Guinea correspondent explained via Twitter that PNG police mobile squad operate inside the detention centre.

There are also conflicting reports about whether the asylum seekers were unarmed or had constructed make-shift weapons from material in the detention centre.

Davis reported that many of the injured asylum seekers suffered head injuries which appeared consistent with them being beaten with sticks.

He also reported that G4S guards had been instructed to lie to their families about events at the centre.

Davis visited Manus Island for SBS in 2013 and reported a "sense of disquiet that the refugees are suffering total imprisonment.  N0-one thought it would turn out like this".

Minister Morrison confirmed that PNG police "were reported to have fired shots" at 11:20pm on Monday night and again at 1am - one of which is believed to have caused injury to one asylum seeker.

100 security staff are on standby to assist the 130 security staff already employed at the centre.


ABC has reported a G4S guard's comments: from the ABC report:

"The serious violence happened when we went in to contain the situation. The clients outnumbered them and they can't contain the situation.
"So what we do is we all G4S local nationals and expats we just rushed in to save our counterparts. So that's where the trouble begin and the fight started."
The guard says Papua New Guinean and Australian staff working for G4S then entered the compound and serious fighting erupted.
"They are using their hands only, their hands to hit them... the clients," he said.
The second guard says force was used to contain the situation.
"There were too many of them in the compound because each compound contains about 400 clients in Oscar compound. About 50 per cent of the clients they were fighting, throwing things at us. So some of us were hit and we retaliated," he said.
"I have to save my friends from the clients because they were not playing."

Monday, February 17, 2014

Manus Island: what we do and don't know

Manus Island - Picture from DIAC
It is unclear whether PNG police and locals entered the Manus Island complex and were involved in the killing and wounding of 78 asylum seekers.

On Monday night, violent events took place leaving one asylum seeker dead, one with a fractured skull and another shot in the buttocks.

Refugee advocates claim that locals and PNG entered the detention facility and inflicted the injuries.  Immigration Minister Scott Morrison says this is incorrect.

 Security firm G4S says locals did not enter the facility and Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said PNG police did not entered the centre, but that injuries were sustained by asylum seekers when they escaped from the detention complex.

One of the key sources for the information relied on by refugee advocates was an asylum seeker who was evacuated from the centre for most of the day.

But refugee advocate Ian Rintoul says he has numerous statements from detainees and staff at the centre.

New Matilda is now reporting information from a "local source" that police entered the compound firing shots.  The course also reportedly claims locals resent the detention centre and were involved in aggression towards the detainees.   

What we know about events unfolding on Manus Island:

  •   More than 1300 detainees are currently on Manus Island – with no women or children.
  •  It is understood processing of asylum seekers’ claims is yet to begin.
  • Protests began on Manus Island on 25 January with detainees chanting for freedom and help.
  • There were reports in February that PNG police were called in to assist G4S guards deal with protestors.
  • 35 asylum seekers escaped the centre on Sunday night but were recaptured.
  • On Monday, eight asylum seekers were arrested and 19 were treated at the centre's medical clinic.
  • On Monday, some asylum seekers were evacuated from the centre and taken to a local oval.
  • The ABC has footage showing detainees gathered in a large group, some with covered faces, moving around inside a compound with police or guards outside.  Some objects appear to be thrown from the detainees – possibly a rock and a man is seen carrying a chair.
  • Scott Morrison confirmed on Tuesday that one man was killed and 77 injured in events at the detention centre on Monday night.  40 have been discharged from medical care.
  • 13 asylum seekers remain in hospital in a serious condition.
  • A man has a skull fracture and is being evacuated to Australia, while another person suffered a gunshot wound to the buttocks.

What we don’t know:
  • Did locals and PNG police break into the compound as suggested by refugee advocates? The security firm at the centre, G4S claims locals did not enter the compound.
  • How, where, and at the hands of whom was one detainee was killed?
  • What sorts of injuries were sustained by 77 wounded detainees?
  •  Were the injuries consistent with G4S practices?
  • Who fired the shots reportedly heard within the compound?

Friday, February 14, 2014

Former planning advisor tells Victorians to change their vote

Roz Hansen

A former key planning advisor to Napthine's government hit out at inadequate public transport funding in Victoria telling a Melbourne transport audience to change their vote.   

Professor Roz Hansen, former chair of the Plan Melbourne Advisory Committee, told dissatisfied Melburnians on Saturday to use pressure on politicians to deliver transport infrastructure. 

She said to “change your vote” when transport was not funded. “Don’t vote for them next time."

Hansen caused a stir in December when she told a Melbourne City Council meeting the majority of the state government’s planning advisory committee had resigned and dissociated themselves with the government’s Plan Melbourne strategy.

From May 2012 until August 2013, Hansen chaired the advisory committee selected by the Napthine government to oversee the development of the metropolitan planning strategy.

Countering Planning Minister Matthew Guy’s comment that “Roz has always had a problem with road transport”, she said it was “ludicrous to be saying I am anti-roads.”

But she said there is “too much focus on large road based projects that only meet the needs of some Melbournians.  Some will benefit, but many will not benefit”.

There are “real deficiencies”, she said, in public transport beyond the ten kilometre mark running the risk of social exclusion for residents living in middle and outer Melbourne.

“We need to service middle suburbs.  We need a bus rapid-transit system.”

Hansen argued Melbourne’s population was now expected to reach 7.5 to 8 million people by 2050 and the number of people using public transport, cycling and walking needed to double.

“It is ludicrous to be building green-field estates with bus stops and no buses.  It is socially irresponsible.”

She said Victoria should redirect funding from the East West Link across metropolitan Melbourne and “improve lives of people on a daily basis”.

“I am not anti the East West Link, but I am anti it being the number one infrastructure project.”

“Everyone has to lead on this.  Don’t let the politicians get away with spending money on road projects that benefit few,” she said.

Professor Graham Currie from Monash University’s Institute of transport Studies joined Hansen in lamenting Victoria’s funding on public transport arguing the current commitment to two bus routes and one rail link was “woefully inadequate”.

Currie and Hansen were speaking at a transport forum, Transport for 6 million, as part of the Sustainability Festival at Federation Square.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Time to close the education gap

COAG Reform Council Education in Australia 2012

Adam Goodes made it.  But the odds were stacked against him.  

As an indigenous child born in Australia in 1980, he was likely to suffer worse health, educational and life-span outcomes than his non-indigenous peers. 

Instead, he had the good fortune of being a skilful and disciplined athlete, and at the age of 16, was plucked from bleaker prospects by AFL scouts.

Goodes has been duly recognised as 2014 Australian of the Year "for his leadership and advocacy in the fight against racism both on the sporting field and within society - a stance which has won him the admiration and respect of people around Australia".

He could equally receive high accolades for his work with indigenous young people - work, it seems, which will never have enough champions.

Indigenous young people today have only a 40% chance of being engaged in study or work after completing school, compared with 60% for non-indigenous, but low socio-economic, young people and 74% for all non-indigenous young people.

That means 60% of indigenous Australians aged 17-24 years are neither employed, nor studying - 80% in the Northern Territory.

These figures are horrifying.  

The 2013 COAG Reform Council report examined educational outcomes from 2007-2012 and found:

  • There was no improvement in school attendance rates of indigenous students
  • More Indigenous young people attained Year 12 or equivalent
  • Over 60% were not fully engaged in study or work after leaving school
  • Indigenous children are more likely to be developmentally vulnerable
  • Increases in indigenous students in Year 3 meeting minimum standard in reading
  • Decreases in indigenous students meeting minimum standard in numeracy in Year 3
These findings mean that COAG is failing to achieve the target set to halve the gap between the educational achievement of indigenous and non-indigenous students by 2018.

More to come