Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Why can't China have a hybrid democratic settlement?

Currently, China's politicians are involved in the 19th Party Congress in Beijing. It is at this time, every five years, that the Communist Party of China elects its top leadership. It does involve the National People's Congress (NPC) - a body of representatives elected in a cascading series of polls down through the Party membership to the local level, but which in fact has no power at all - as well as the top leaders such as the Premier, Xi Jingping. Overseas, people watch to see how the dice fall as the real deliberations of the leaders in China takes place in complete privacy, away from the public gaze.

The Party has said that it will never have a Western system of rotating governments of different parties, but there remains a latent appetite in the community for democratic power, and the opportunity to voice opinions in public on political matters. You see the strength of this appetite in the rivers of wealth leaving China for safe havens in places like Australia's property market. So far, the Party has remained firm in its opposition to a democratic process to oversee the peaceful transfer of power from one set of leaders to the next, despite the popularity of this system in virtually every other country in the world.

But what about if we allowed the Party to retain absolute control over part of the political machinery, such as the executive, and lay the legislature open to election by the general populace? This sort of hybrid system worked well enough in Britain for hundreds of years - in fact, you could say that it continues to work in Britain today, as well as in countries where the Queen of England remains the head of state, such as New Zealand, Canada, and Australia - and still allowed the emergence of other sources of power in society.

Political parties per se emerged in Britain in the years after the so-called Glorious Revolution in 1688. On the king's side were the Tories - the name apparently means "bog runner" in Gaelic - and on the side of the landed interest were the Whigs. In parliament throughout the 18th century and well into the 19th these two parties worked to determine government policy and to settle other issues such as the distribution of spoils deriving through corruption from the business of government. But the king remained at the top and continued to wield considerable power throughout this period. It wasn't really until the 20th century that the monarch's practical influence was reduced to a largely ceremonial function.

For hundreds of years, therefore, during which government was run by the King in Parliament, Britain rose to economic and strategic heights never seen before since Roman times. And a similar fate could await China if it decided, for example, to give the electorate the power to choose representatives as people living in Westminster-system countries do all over the world today. The NPC would under such a settlement become a truly representative body, and China's standing in the global community would consequently soar to unrivaled heights. Imagine how important such a development would be in terms of its strategic effect ...

Monday, 16 October 2017

Wentworth Park rough sleepers have gone

Last Thursday Lanz Priestley put up on his Facebook page a notice that the rough sleepers in Wentworth Park were being evicted from where they had had their tents set up under the railway viaduct’s arches. Yesterday when I was on my way up to Newtown to do some shopping I snapped this photo showing the empty arches. And on the way home I went around the other way so that I could see if they had been moved on from the other side of the park too. They had been. So Lanz was right: the rough sleepers have been moved on. And there were two City Rangers in the park when I was walking back home yesterday too, no doubt to make sure the rough sleepers don’t come back.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

We're less tolerant of transgression in the face of facts

I saw a wonderful photo by Fairfax photojournalist Alex Ellinghausen showing three small girls running down the hill which forms the roof of Parliament House in 2016, before the security fence was erected. When I was younger I had a friend who worked as a journalist in the building, and one day when I visited Canberra he took me on a tour. We walked through endless passageways and up flights of stairs, then we went through a door and all of a sudden we ended up on the grassy slope that is the building's roof. There was something magical about this sudden revelation that has meant that I have never forgotten it.

We see creeping security measures everywhere we look, a desire to coerce and control people so that they don't transgress. We see it in the stories about recent increased security at the ABC building in Ultimo, where now guards pounce on visitors to ask them what their business is. You see it in the warning signals set in the macadam of the roadway at some pedestrian crossings in the city, where the authorities are trying out new ways to stop people crossing against the lights. You see it in the visibility of guards in shopping centres - those black-uniformed men and women constantly circulating among shoppers. You see it when there are police officers with sniffer dogs positioned outside train stations screening commuters for illicit substances. You see it in the bollards set up in busy pedestrian areas next to roadways to guard against people using vehicles as a weapon. You also see it in the federal government's giving authorities access to the meta data of people's communications, and in Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's naming of encrypted communications channels as tools used to subvert the efforts of authorities investigating terrorism.

But the crime statistics show that overall we are safer now than we have been for a long time. These charts are from BOCSAR (the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, NSW).

Above: Long-term violent offences trend, NSW, Covers period from January 1995 to July 2016. (Violent offences include: murder, attempted murder, manslaughter, assault - domestic violence related, assault - non-domestic violence related, assault police, robbery without a weapon, robbery with a firearm, robbery with a weapon not a firearm, sexual assault and indecent assault / act of indecency / other sexual offences.)

Above: Long-term property offences trend, NSW. Covers period from January 1995 to July 2016. (Property offences include: break and enter dwelling, break and enter non-dwelling, motor vehicle theft, steal from motor vehicle, steal from retail store, steal from dwelling, steal from person, stock theft, other theft and fraud.)

Saturday, 14 October 2017

Celebration of our criminals exposes a cultural chauvinism

Long before Mark "Chopper" Reid was a household name we had Ned Kelly, a celebrated rogue although a deadly criminal. Nowadays, there are plenty of books about Australian criminals, including Carl Williams, Roger Rogerson, Lindsey Rose, John Ibrahim, Alphonse Gangitano, Richard Kuklinksi, and Robert Farquharson. There are hundreds, probably thousands. And while it's only in the last 40 years or so that as a nation we have come to terms with our convict past, the tide has well and truly turned, and those who can trace their family histories back to the early days of the colony - especially if their forebears were convicts - are happy to enlighten you by announcing the news.

There is a strong demotic streak in Australia. For example, every year when the Archibald Prize exhibition of finalists is held at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the TV news always gives viewers notice of the winner of the vaunted Packing Room Prize, where the judge is the head packer working at the gallery. (The head packer's name is Brett Cuthbertson.) The prize is usually given to a conventional portrait of no particular artistic merit, other than its fidelity to nature. Winners of the prize tend to be large, smooth renditions of famous local TV personalities.

But that's not all. Just down the road from the gallery is a statue of Robert Burns, the famous Scottish poet of the 18th century, which was erected in 1905. Burns is most famous for the fact that he was an unlearned farm labourer. (He also wrote the lyrics to one of the most famous songs in existence, 'Auld lang syne', a sentimental ditty everyone is familiar with.) And another statue can also serve to illustrate my point. Outside the Queen Victoria Building on Druitt Street is the statue of the monarch presiding over the street, but next to it is another statue: that of  a Skye Terrier named "Islay", begging above a wishing well. It was erected in 1988.

These three examples of Australian kitsch serve to illustrate the demotic streak in the culture, one that exemplifies a tendency to seek out the lowest common denominator, the ordinary, and the real in preference to the celebrated, the showy, and the artificial. On the other hand, to celebrate criminals - who personify this demotic bias because they offer no challenge to the individual's sense of self (undistinguished, ordinary, and common) - is also to prefer these qualities in preference to the brilliant, the excellent, and the uncommon. It is to say, without any ceremony, "We are plain, unimaginative people whose only aspiration is to be rich."

For the criminal has the same aspirations as the capitalist - the other side of the same coin, so to speak - which is to be at the same time wealthy and drunk, and to gamble on sport. It is so easy to admire the criminal because he or she shares the same goals as the average bloke: to never have to do a lick of work, or to have to strive for some seemingly-unattainable goal. And we're proud of this aspect of ourselves. We consider it to be one of the things that sets us apart from other people. We have a chauvinist's love of our demotic roguery, although it is hardly a point of difference in any real sense: people all over the developed world are happy indulging their baser instincts, providing a poor example to their peers in the developing world.

Friday, 13 October 2017

Pyrmont sandstone is still being cut out

The photo below shows the construction site on Harris Street, Pyrmont, where they are building new townhouses. You can see they have sliced through the sandstone to make room for the new dwellings. Pyrmont was from 1853 the site of the Saunders and Company quarry. These days, Saunders Street is very close to Quarry Master Drive on the Anzac Bridge side of the peninsula. In his book Pyrmont and Ultimo: A History (1982), Michael R. Matthews writes:
The peninsula rose steeply out of the clear waters of Sydney Harbour and fortunately for the architectural history of Sydney it comprised some of the best sandstone in the world. Between 1880 and 1893 Pyrmont sandstone won first prize at building exhibitions in Melbourne, Amsterdam, India and Chicago. It was tested as withstanding a pressure of 100,000 lbs. per square inch. 
Charles Saunders, a stone mason from Devonshire, was 28 years old when he arrived in Sydney on 9 April 1852. With him was his five year old son, Robert and his wife Emily. 
Charles leased land from the Harris family in 1853 and established a quarry on the north west of Pyrmont where there were already minor ballast quarries operating and where there was also a sizeable population of Scottish stonemasons brought out by the Rev. Dunmore Lang from Clyde in 1831. 
Robert finished his schooling at Sydney Grammar and joined his father in the business. He became the driving force behind the expansion of the quarries. The streets and tracks of the peninsula became rutted as the bullock and Clydesdale teams carried sandstone blocks to the building sites of Sydney University, the Colonial Secretary's Office, the Department of Lands, the Australian Mutual Provident Society and the Australian Joint Stock Bank. As well as these, St. Paul's Cathedral in Melbourne and public buildings in New Zealand, Fiji and Canada arose as Pyrmont was levelled. 
One of the major constructions was the Sydney Post Office in 1885. The keystone block for the main arch  in George Street measured 13 feet by 4 feet 6 inches by 6 feet 6 inches. This weighed over 25 tons and was delivered using a specially constructed wagon pulled by a team of 26 of the finest and strongest Clydesdales.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Making a nation: West Papua, an interview with Jacob Rumbiak

After I spoke with Australian Peter Woods last month for this blog he put me in touch with Jacob Rumbiak, a Melanesian man who fled Indonesia in 1999 to base himself in Australia, from where he has been coordinating West Papuan independence work. This transcript has been edited somewhat for easier reading.

MdS: Ok, so [the voice recorder is] running. So, Jacob can you tell me a little bit about your story. You came to Australia in 1999. Is that right?

Correct, yes. I arrived in Darwin from East Timor in September 1999. So, I came with the delegation of UN observer members on the 2nd of September 1999 to Darwin. When I arrived, I wanted to go back to Indonesia because I entered Australia without, you know, following the regulations of Australia. You should enter with a visa and also a passport. I came without a passport and also a visa. But when I arrived in Darwin together with a delegation of the United Nations, I explained to immigration that I came without a visa. So, they said, ‘Well, how did you come without visa?’ I said, ‘I was a political prisoner and I am still under house arrest but because it was too dangerous and I had no choice, I took this Hercules.’

And then the way opened to me and one month later, on October 1999, my colleague Xanana Gusmao – because we were together as pollical prisoners in Cipinang Prison in Jakarta – he arrived and on the night of the delegation of East Timor’s dinner with the Australia federal government, Xanana introduce me to Philip Ruddock, at the time he the minister of immigration, and then later because of him someone helped me to appoint a lawyer. I think this lawyer is now in Sydney, his name is Jonathan Hunior, he’s the one who helped me to prepare all the documents to get permission to stay in Australia, and in only two months I got permanent residency. So that’s the story of how and why I arrived here. Of course, I couldn’t be safe in Timor Leste. And also, at the time I wanted to go back to Jakarta because I was still under house arrest (until 2007). So, when I discussed this with Xanana and also one of Indonesia’s very famous human rights defenders – he was poisoned by the Indonesian intelligence agency in 2014 when he flew from Jakarta to the Netherlands; he passed away in the aeroplane – so he’s the one, and also another Indonesian lawyer, and Xanana, they advised me, they said ‘Better you stay’.

Because the lawyer [indecipherable] said ‘Better you stay so that you can help the West Papua movement.’ Because at the time Ramos Horta told Xanana to tell me that there was no West Papuan diplomat outside the country: ‘Better you stay so that you can use your influence to keep the movement going. Both inside and outside must connect. West Papua lost because you haven’t had good contact between inside and outside.’ That’s why I came out. And now we have very good cooperation. But that’s the story about how I came and why I came to Australia.

MdS: So, since 1999 you’ve been living in Melbourne and you’ve been helping the West Papuan struggle. What have you been doing? Have you been giving advice? When I spoke to Peter Woods he said that you were the intellectual architect of the movement. Is that true?

Yeah, that’s right. I was a lecturer at a state university in Indonesia, in Java. Initially, I was a lecturer at (now they call it) UPI, Indonesia University of Education. That’s one of the most famous Indonesian education institutions. At the time they called it Institute of Education of Indonesia. And now they changed the name, and they call it Indonesia University of Education, UPI.

So, when I graduated from university I was a lecturer there and also, because my subject is astronomy maths, in climate and training air traffic control. So, from 1982 to 84 I was at the Indonesian Military Academy, who also needed specialists in dropping parachutes, so they opened an opportunity to someone who want to teach there. They let us enrol and then we had to pass a selection process. And so, I passed. So, I was an academic lecturing at the state university but also at the Indonesian Military Academy.

So, when I was there in 1986 I was sent to West Papua because in Cendrawasih University, the State University of Papua, they didn’t have a specialist in training air traffic control for airports, and also astronomy. And at the time they also appointed me to be director of scientists for east Indonesia. So, when I was there I saw lots of Papuans killed, disciplined, tortured, so I thought, ‘No way.’ Especially I saw how we lost the movement because Indonesia tried to create a fight between our liberation army and the military. And at the time our military and our political movement leadership broke, you know, they had internal problems. And in the jungle they split, they became three groups of military, they killed each other. So, at that time I thought that only education could change things. So, in 1986 we changed, and decided that the movement must actually be in the village, in the city. And also we should educate Indonesian people to support us to have a real movement, what I call ‘people power’, a student movement in Java, Bali, Sulawesi. So, we had to have a movement inside West Papua but also in Indonesia territory.

But we didn’t have anything outside, that’s why when I arrived in Australia every year from 2000 until 2005 I held a workshop on the border, in Jaunimo between Jayapura and Sandaun Province of Papua New Guinea. So, I went and ran a West Papuan student national workshop, twice a year from 2000 to 2005, when I saw that it was enough. At that time, I tried to prepare West Papuan students to organise people power in the city, also in Indonesian territory. And also, I took some of our friends from Australia to train student in the use of mobile phones and cameras to get documentation, because we didn’t have enough documents to tell the world about the current situation in West Papua.

So, I tried to prepare a human quality movement and of course that’s come from the student movement and I collected people from 312 different tribes. They went back to their tribes and set up our motto and taught our different tribes that we are - although we are different tribes - but we are one people, one soul and one goal. And that was a very important doctrine. I told West Papuans that although we have 312 different tribes we must see West Papua with only one set of eyes, because the majority of Papuans are Christians but we also have a national Muslim movement who work very closely with us Christians and Catholics. So, in West Papua all religions work very closely together. So, I said, ‘Look, West Papuans have got eyes, don’t look through Christian eyes, or Muslim eyes, or the eyes of other tribes, but we believe God is one. Look, West Papua is in one in God’s eyes. And different tribes are souls God must look after. You from the highland, look after the highland. You from the valley, from the coast, from the islands. So, when people in the highland need fish, ok, you from island of course send fish up there. When you from island want to enjoy snow, go up there because we have family up there.’

So, to uphold our moral understanding and how to keep unity we had a movement until the Second Papuan People’s Congress (in 2000), and the Third Papuan People’s Congress (in 2011). But still the Indonesians were very smart, they tried to create intelligence to come with what they call divide and rule. But we tried to work together to uphold unity between tribe and tribe. We also have one group we call West Papuan National Youth Awareness Team, which run awareness to our liberation army which has already splintered inside the jungle and has become three groups. And now they must work to raise awareness among Papuans in Papua New Guinea because they also split, became lots of groups. We have people in Holland who also split and became 22 groups. So, this is very heavy but I’m now happy because although it took a long time, since 1986, in 2014 it was all done.

But, yes, it was very, very difficult but today I am very happy because I see that education is very successful in bringing all of them to stand … I always say ‘We must stand on two feet.’ So I had a paper, I said before that we are like the cassowary – in West Papua we have cassowaries also – I said, ‘We fail because the cassowary only stands on one foot.’ It’s means we existed only as a political body. But now we stand on two feet. One foot is people power, the civilian movement and one foot is the political movement. And the political movement has a political wing, a diplomatic wing, an intelligence wing, and the military. So now we have two feet.

That means strength but it’s still not enough. Because we need three actors to be involved. The first actor is the people of West Papua, the locals, they must have initiative, they must be active to move, they must organise so that the people can unite. If the people unite the leadership on two feet must unite. The civil rights movement must unite. Politics unite. And both of them unite.

But it’s still not enough. We also must have support from the Indonesian side. Today we have FRI West Papua, that means ‘free’ in Bahasa Indonesia. In Indonesian language F is ‘Front’, R is ‘Rakyat’, I is ‘Indonesia’ for West Papua, that is ‘Front Rakyat Indonesia untuk West Papua’. We have 11 provinces with them, they are Indonesians who support us on Indonesian territory. I hope when you have time you can talk with one of their coordinators, now based in Indonesian territory.
Now, we also have international support. One is you. We have eight Pacific countries who sponsor us, also now the Africa, Caribbean, and Pacific Nations, and European countries they are also involved, and Latin America.

So, we need three actors. The first actor is very active inside: we have this. The second actor is support from Indonesian people. The third actor is international support. So, when three actors work very closely I believe that the West Papuan issue, the West Papuan struggle, can be resolved. That’s our way going forward to get independence. I always say that ‘We should solve this problem by the noble way.’ I think that’s my opinion and what I want. I am still doing it.

MdS: How much support do you find inside Australia? I understand that the Australian government has the Lombok Treaty with Indonesia which means that Australia respects Indonesia’s geographical sovereignty over West Papua, but there must be other people who have different ideas in Australia.

Yeah, I met a few politicians in Canberra also at the state level. I work very closely with two or three from Labor, and from the Liberal Party also. The Australian Greens, yes, because I am very close with Di Natale, Adams and Scott (who is finished because he’s a New Zealander, I think). But I’m very close with them. Also in 2015 I signed an agreement, an MOU, with the Australian Council of Trade Unions. I met with some politicians. And federally yes, they support us. We also have parliamentarians in Canberra but with the institutions I think it’s difficult. So far only the Greens. I talked to them. I said, ‘Ok, I understood that based on its institutions Australia as a federal country always follows the United Nations, as long as United Nation does not recognise West Papua, the Australian government can’t give us our voice.’

But just two months ago I met with a Liberal politician, one of the backbenchers, and I told him that – me and Peter Woods met this MP – and I asked him, I said: ‘Could you talk to your government because you now control this country. Please support Pacific countries because Polynesia, Micronesia, Melanesia now are behind West Papua. So, I hope that when something happens in New York at the headquarters of the United Nation and they call for West Papua to be solved by the principle of the UN. Why? Because West Papua are the victims of a world policy or a global decision made to protect ANZUS – Australia, New Zealand, United States – because in the era of 1960s – 50s, 60s, 70s – there was the very important issue of Communism. And second is because of WWII. Australia said it would support East Timor because East Timor have supported Australia and the Australia alliance to win WWII. But how about West Papua? We have lots of documents concerning around 300 warships that landed at Hollandia – now they call it Jayapura – and my island Noemfoor in 1942 was used because all the runways on the mainland had already been attacked by Japan and so you landed on my small island, Noemfoor. When I was in secondary school I looked around my island in and the coral was [indecipherable]. And also, we have resources, gold. So, we contribute three good things for the America-Australia alliance. The America-Australia alliance stood on Melanesian land, including West Papua, to win the Second World War. Second is when in the Cold War America-Australia sacrificed West Papuan life, when almost one million were killed. And third is the goldmine, the resources. Rio Tinto have around 27 percent of goldmine Freeport. So, we contributed great value for you, and we don’t need money, we don’t need anything, but we only need our rights, our dignity, our sovereignty, and our liberty. That’s all.’ 

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Big data and AI in the law

Today’s talk was part of the Information Innovation @ UTS seminar series, organised by the University of Technology, Sydney. One speaker was Carolyn Austin, a lawyer with law firm K&L Gates. Austin has worked in knowledge management for 25 years, and her talk was titled ‘Managing legal knowledge in the age of AI’. Also speaking was James Jarvis from Thomson Reuters and his talk was titled ‘From knowledge oriented projects to automated decision systems’.

Today we see the convergence of AI, big data, process design, and knowledge work, said Austin. There have been dire predictions of job-eating robots, and in the legal profession there are also pressures on the market from increased competition, and from new people entering the market. Austin said that it is up to law firms to be in the vanguard of new technology, because they are well placed to rise to meet opportunities. She also added that there is also an ethical imperative that should be driving law firms to embrace new technologies.

She mentioned Michael Olsson at UTS, who teaches in the field. In law, Austin said, knowledge management means leveraging collective expertise to better serve clients. Big data is about the four-‘v’s: volume, velocity, variety and veracity. It is also important to use data analytical tools, which are descriptive, diagnostic, predictive, and prescriptive (telling us what should we do). AI or cognitive technologies are used more and more frequently for tasks that normally require human intelligence. There is also now a lot of natural language processing in the legal profession. Expert systems can be applied to very complex knowledge domains. Austin also noted that legal knowledge work is rapidly and permanently changing.

James Jarvis in his talk pointed to the fact that the size of the digital universe today is 16 zettabytes (1 trillion gigabytes) which will increase to 163 zettabytes by 2025. There are more and more opportunities for lawyers than ever before, he said. Only 0.5 percent of data is currently analysed and this will increase to 1.4 percent by 2025. The amount of digital information available for analysis is equivalent to 40 trillion DVDs, or 26 zettabytes. He said that Walmart is currently processing 2.5 petabytes an hour for its store operations. At the present time, 30 percent of data is created by businesses, and by 2025 this will increase to 60 percent.

To illustrate how radically the world has changed, in 1986, Jarvis went on, most data was analogue, but now it is mostly digital. There are now over 6 million apps in the iPhone Appstore. But in 2017, 87 percent of law firms said that they are not using AI, although companies that use big data are making decisions 5 times faster than their competitors. There will be an impact on billable hours, floor space and organisational structure due to adoption of technology. Knowledge managers are design thinking strategists in the legal profession. There was $5 billion of investment in AI for law in 2016, and the trend over time is up.

Jarvis put up a slide on the screen at the front of the room that said that knowledge work automation would equate to $6.7 trillion in economic impact by 2025. That would equal the productivity of 140 million equivalent full-time workers.

During the question period, one participant said that some problems are too complex for automation. Jarvis said in response that you have to turn that into a business proposition. Carolyn added that you can’t oversimplify complex legal matters but that there are examples where lawyers have conversely said that the law needs to be simplified. Another participant asked what are the limitations of AI and big data. Is it a risk that lawyers will just use the routine route to finding a solution, and not be creative, if AI is adopted more in law? Iteration is important, said Jarvis. He also said that the aggregation of meaningful interactions with data teaches algorithms to do their work.

Another participant asked why lawyers are so slow in looking at AI. She was answered by another person in the room who said that lawyers are confronted by it. Jarvis said that a critical element in design thinking is to tell the right story for the audience, and that people have to be brought along on the journey. Another participant said that lawyers have no interest in automating their work because it’s competition for them. Jarvis said that you have to keep doing it by watching how people work. Austin added that lawyers are risk averse, too.

Above: James Jarvis with a slide showing software applications for the legal profession. Not all will survive.

Monday, 9 October 2017

Movie review: Blade Runner 2049, dir Denis Villeneuve (2017)

Villeneuve is the Canadian director of last year's Arrival, which I reviewed on this blog, and which was a much better film than this one, which suffers from a weak story, one that fails to sustain the viewer's interest for the almost three hours that it runs. Ryan Gosling as the blade runner K is fairly interesting but Harrison Ford as a pugnacious Rick Deckard is too old to be slugging it out inside a derelict and radioactive casino somewhere out in the wastes beyond the city limits of greater Los Angeles. Presumably it's in Nevada.

By this time the whole thing has lost its way, anyway. The story in essence comes down to a struggle between the curiously messianic and almost incomprehensible - he talks in quatrains, it appears - Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) on the one hand and K and his boss Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright) on the other. Joshi and K are searching for a child because the child, apparently - spoiler alert - was the offspring of a human and a blade runner, an outcome that has apparently "broken the world". And Wallace, whose business empire is based on producing replicants, sees the child as evidence of unwanted corporate competition.

It's just so trite. There's very little imagination in evidence here, just a series of scenes where escalating violence - mainly perpetrated by Wallace's sidekick, Luv (Syliva Hoecks) - is meant to result in an increase in the viewer's anticipation, as things progress. But it's hard to maintain any enthusiasm for the characters, even K, despite the fact that he seems to have all the necessary human emotions. But so what? He evinces desire for sex and finds it with his private hologram, Joi (Ana de Armas), but it's not really interesting even when Joi tries to satisfy her owner's desires by synching with the body of a real human, Mariette (Mackenzie Davis) - or is Mariette also a replicant?

There was a lot of hype about the visuals for this movie, which were meant to be good value, and that was one hook to get me in the door, but the dramatic soundtrack just became tiresome and Wallace completely failed to live up to his vaunted reputation as a megalomaniacal sadist. If any character appealed to me it was the poor Joi, a captive simulacrum of a human whose only aim was to please her owner, but who signally failed to do that even in the most prosaic - cinematically speaking - terms. 

Sunday, 8 October 2017

Prettifying Jane Austen

In the UK, they have created a new banknote with the portrait of Jane Austen on it, and while I enthusiastically applaud this use of public real estate to recognize the unique contribution of a woman who almost single-handedly invented the modern novel, I have strong reservations about the source used to generate the image. The first picture below shows the new banknote. The second picture shows the portrait of Austen created by her beloved sister, Cassandra, in 1810, when Jane was still alive. The third picture below shows the sanitised portrait created by professional artist James Andrews based on Cassandra's portrait. This portrait was used for the fourth picture below, which is an engraving used for the purpose of illustrating the memoir about Austen written by her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh, which was published in 1869. What we're not seeing in the new banknote is a portrait based on Cassandra's original drawing, but rather one based on the sanitised, Victorian-era portrait made by Andrews.

Saturday, 7 October 2017

Abandoned oBikes, Wentworth Park

This morning these three oBikes were on the grass in Wentworth Park, Ultimo, where people had left them. Two of the bikes had no helmet with them. There was another bike - from a different company - that had been left on the footpath on King Street, Newtown, also. Such rental bikes are starting to become a hazard, or at least a public nuisance.

Friday, 6 October 2017

“Producing original journalism costs a lot of money”

These are the words of Emma Alberici, host of the ABC’s Lateline program, which yesterday the broadcaster said would not continue in 2018. Instead, the ABC will be setting up an investigative bureau with beats covered by some 30 journalists, including Alberici (who will take the economics beat) and Stan Grant (who will take the Asia beat).

Alberici went on the ABC’s Radio National to explain. This is some of what she said:
And management, I guess – and I understand this – had to make a decision about when audiences are defrayed as they are and splintered all over the place – you know, on-demand services, Netflix, Stan, Foxtel and everywhere else in-between – iTunes – we’re competing with all those players that are new for eyeballs, so you need to work out where your money’s best spent. And the ABC has made a decision that you need to protect our history of breaking stories, original journalism, and investigations, and put our money there.  
So, management has been very clear that there is no cost-cutting agenda here. We’ve been told no money will be saved by losing Lateline, and no net journalism jobs will be lost. So, the same number of journalists will be employed by the ABC next year as are now. So, that’s very comforting, and I’m very happy to hear that because I, like those who do what I do, care about quality journalism. And if what we’re doing is investing more money into that, and worrying less about the platforms through which that’s delivered – that is, you don’t have to be attached to a particular program – as long as you’re making a fantastic story that breaks news, is original, uncovers something that others didn’t want uncovered, then that will find an outlet these days. You put it online.  
You know, at the moment journalism can be a post on Facebook, as it can be a story on 4 Corners. Things have changed so dramatically in terms of how you define journalism and we need to be where our audiences are. And I think that’s the challenge for all media organisations.
The ABC’s position as a trusted source will hopefully be enhanced by this move toward a more investigative stance vis-à-vis the public sphere.

In the US, local news organisations are going to be supported, in another initiative, by ProPublica – the New York non-profit journalism organisation that was set up in 2007 with money from philanthropists Herbert and Marion Sandler. ProPublica will be funding journalists to work on investigative projects in local newsrooms (in cities with a population below 1 million).

Trust is a rare commodity – but one that is prized by all journalists – in the polarised public sphere that we are nowadays confronted with, which is why Google’s head of news Richard Gingras has been working on The Trust Project with Sally Lehrman, a senior scholar on journalism ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at the University of Santa Clara, in California, developing ethics policies. There are 90 news organisations involved. The project is, for example, encouraging the visibility of ethics policies on news websites.

For my own part, when I start publishing new stories when my new website has been launched, I will be following the code of ethics of the journalist’s union in Australia, the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, which you can read here.

Thursday, 5 October 2017

China's consumers benefit from Australia's free media

I'm currently working on a new story about Asian investment in Australian agricultural and food properties, but the story is bigger than simply the numbers of farms owned by Chinese interests. It's true that China is a major buyer of farmland. The figures are clear. In the 2015-16 financial year Chinese owners had 1,463,000 hectares of Australian farmland and that figure had grown to 14,422,000 hectares by the 2016-17 financial year (second still to the UK).

But while major plays like Cubbie Station (the big cotton farm in southern Queensland) and the former S. Kidman estate (which includes various properties in several states) get the majority of the exposure in the media, it's more normal for purchases by Asian companies to be smaller. Often, too, they are joint ventures with Australian partners.

What also struck me during the course of my research was the number of non-farm agricultural properties - such as feedlots, abattoirs, sugar refineries, and port facilities - that are being bought or built by Asian interests. Some Chinese companies are thinking big, getting involved in the whole value chain from the farm to the port to the retail market. They are thinking big because they know that Chinese consumers trust Australian produce, which is considered "clean and green".

Which brings me to the point I wanted to make. We have such a reliable food system because we have a free press and a representative government - and an ethical judicial system - making sure the interests of consumers and communities are given as much importance as the financial wellbeing of private companies. Our public sphere works. Which is more than you can say for China's. Chinese consumers voting with their retail yuan are voting for a system like Australia's, which they can trust with their lives.

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

The way to fix homelessness is to get people into housing

I have been writing about the homeless on this blog for the past couple of months, and to find answers to some of the questions I had, I spoke on the phone with Kate Colvin, manager policy and communications, Council to Homeless Persons, the peak body for the sector in Victoria.

MdS: Ok, [the voice recorder is] running. So, I’ve been looking into homelessness a little bit and one of the things that I found is that the Australian Bureau of Statistics has been able to go back to about 2001 to make meaningful comparisons. The 2016 census figures are coming out later this year I understand but there seems to be a change in policy at the ABS in 2008 with the Road Home report. How important was that report do you think?

Road Home was the last time we’ve really had a proper national strategy around homelessness. So, it was a very important report and following from the Road Home there was a national partnership, called the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness, that funded a number of the critical initiatives that were spelled out in the Road Home, including investing in preventing people from homelessness when they exit institutions like prison or acute mental health care, and initiatives around youth homelessness. So, it was very important.

MdS: The current figure for Australia based on the 2011 census is about 105,000 people. How accurate do you think that is? Do you expect the figure to go up in the census in 2016?

Yes, we do expect the figure to go up. It’s always hard, the question around accuracy, because it relies on people self-reporting or actually being able to be found by the people who are conducting the census. But there are specific tools that are used to identify people; specialist census collectors go out and identify people who are experiencing homelessness. We think, certainly, it’s the best available data that we have and we do expect that it will increase significantly when the data comes out for the [2016] census.

MdS: In the count of the homeless, the ABS uses five different categories, which are: sleeping rough, in emergency accommodation, living in accommodation for the homeless, living in non-conventional dwellings due to lack of housing, and living temporarily with family or friends due to lack of housing. A lot of countries don’t have such a complete compass for their counting. How justified do you think the ABS is to have such a broad set of categories for counting the homeless?

These are all really important categories because the thing about the distinction between being homeless and having a home, is that having a home is actually about a lot more than shelter. So, it also needs to include the concept of safety. Is the home safe? Is it secure? You know, if you’re just couch-surfing with a friend then you don’t have your own home, it’s not a proper tenancy, it’s just temporary. Likewise, if you’re in a dwelling that’s so unsatisfactory that you don’t have a proper kitchen or you can’t have friends over because you don’t have space, that’s not really a home. That’s why the ABS uses those definitions, and we certainly think they’re all important.

MdS: New Zealand uses the same set of definitions [as] Australia [but Australia] has about 0.5% of the population counted as homeless, [while] New Zealand has almost 1% of the population counted as homeless, in 2015. Why do you think there’s such a big discrepancy there between the two countries?

I’m not closely familiar with [the] homelessness situation in New Zealand, so I’m not quite sure if they’re exactly the same statistical definitions. But if they are I could only conclude that they must have deeper poverty, if they have more people who are homeless. Because the two are very deeply connected.

MdS: Or a more accurate way of counting people?

Possibly. So, it could be a technical reason such as that, and you’d really need to be a technical expert in the census to know the difference between the two, and I’m not across New Zealand’s situation.

MdS: There’s a couple of schemes in Sydney for helping people who find themselves homeless, whereby the developer – I don’t know if you have the same schemes in Melbourne – but developers are allowed to increase the number of units in developments if they set aside some apartments for accommodation at affordable rates, or alternatively for no rent at all, but for a limited period of time, say 10 years. How important do you think schemes like this are for combating homelessness?

I think that kind of scheme can make a contribution but the fact of the matter is that in Sydney there [are] not nearly enough properties that are affordable to people who are on very low incomes. In fact, across Sydney, it’s very difficult even for people on quite moderate incomes to find housing that they can afford. Clearly those measures are not adequate. Often that kind of measure relies, I suppose, on local government, or it might be a state government …

MdS: Both.

Yeah, or the two working together. But part of the problem that we have that’s driving homelessness is a mismatch of the way the federal government structures housing policy. So, you have housing taxation and tax settings generally that make a big impact on how the housing market works, and they don’t work effectively for delivering affordable housing.

MdS: You’re talking about negative gearing?

Yeah, so in particular we have billions of dollars of subsidy – about 11 billion dollars annually – that go into capital gains tax and negative gearing exemptions. Certainly, the negative gearing component of that – which is about 6 billion dollars a year – is ostensibly intended to produce more affordable rental housing but clearly it doesn’t because there’s these massive shortfalls in the availability of rental housing. But it still costs 6 billion dollars a year. And in fact, the two of them working together – capital gains tax exemptions and negative gearing – actually tend to push up the price of housing. So, in fact they’re counterproductive, at great cost to the taxpayer.

MdS: I don’t know if you’ve had similar things in Melbourne, I think I heard something similar happening at Flinders Street Station where the homeless were moved on from the station. We had an event in Sydney a couple of months ago where people sleeping in tents in Martin Place were moved on by the state government. What do you think the visibility of homelessness can do to help governments to make better decisions about how to provide more affordable accommodation?

I think the visibility of homelessness helps in some ways, and I suppose the evidence in both Sydney and Melbourne is that sometimes it can create a context in which the government delivers a knee-jerk response. So, I think it’s difficult for people to understand the depth of the homelessness problem when it is all hidden away, in terms of people being in overcrowded dwellings or emergency accommodation, but when people see their fellow citizens sleeping in the street then there is generally a community response to that. Much of which is very empathetic.

But people want quick solutions, often, and the real solution to solve homelessness is getting people into housing, and housing is a more expensive solution and plus there’s a lot of – as I was saying before – big policy directions that are pushing against the creation of more affordable housing, like tax. So, in the absence of feeling like they can deliver the policies that will actually reduce homelessness, that visibility contributes to a sort of political pressure which then - as we saw in the state government’s response to [the] Martin Place [tent city] – results in a knee-jerk response. Similarly, in Melbourne. Though I should add that in fact the local government concluded to not pass those laws, and it is not illegal to sleep rough in the City of Melbourne.

MdS: I think the policy in Sydney with the city council and the state government is not always consistent. Some people are allowed to sleep close to the city and others aren’t. It seems to have come to a head with Martin Place, and it was a special set of circumstances. But it was a very polarising thing. I was up there quite frequently and I talked to a lot of people and some people were very supportive of the people living in Martin Place, and other people were very critical. I think that there’s a range of different views in the community about these things.

Yeah, and irrespective of whether people like to see others who are homeless, or react to it by wanting to blame the people that they see who are homeless, I guess there’s a body of evidence that shows what works in reducing homelessness, particularly in reducing rough sleeping. It’s very clear. International research shows that the only solution involves housing people and often providing support to people - as well - who are housed. And that actually moving people on really achieves nothing other than harm to the people who are moved on.

MdS: It seems to be difficult in terms of making policy though because the different countries have different ways of counting homeless people, for example in Sweden and Finland they count people who are in prison as homeless, whereas they don’t in Australia and New Zealand. So, because there are different ways of counting people it’s difficult to compare different countries and to get a good grasp of what policies work and what don’t.

That’s both true and not true, in the sense that while different countries have different overall numbers - they will cite different ways of coming to a total number of people who are homeless - there’s been a body of research that looked at the sub-group of people who experience homelessness, such as people who are rough sleeping on the street, and that’s where there is clear evidence about what to do with that group. Likewise, in terms of overall homelessness, the body of research shows that getting people into housing is a satisfactory way to end their homelessness and reduce homelessness overall.

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Defaced graffito, Bay Street, Glebe

On Sunday I snapped this photo of a defaced graffito near Broadway. It neatly encapsulates the idea that there are conflicting viewpoints in the marriage equality debate in the community. Someone has taken the trouble to carefully cover over the 'Yes' that had been scrawled on the pavement, using grey spray paint. Oddly, though, the painted word will endure long after the chalked one has been washed away by rain and passing footfalls.

Monday, 2 October 2017

Feeding the rough sleepers, Wentworth Park

Yesterday at around 11am, on my way to Broadway, I passed some men standing in Wentworth Park around a couple of trestle tables that had been set up on the grass. There was food on the tables and a man wearing a T-shirt with the organisation’s name printed on it was eating a sandwich. Other men were sitting on the park’s wall next to the footpath. The organisation’s van was parked on the footpath under the railway viaduct. The website for Will2Live is here.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

An afternoon with Glenn Harper

Architect Glenn Harper fronted the audience at a talk ('Sydney, You're Brutal') as part of the Sydney Architecture Festival with MC, radio host Tim “Rosso” Ross, and Michelle Tabet, an urban strategist who founded firm Left Bank.

Harper has spent a lot of time cataloguing the brutalist buildings that are still extant in Sydney, and said that advocacy work needed it. “You need to underpin that with a bit of research,” he said, adding humbly: “By all means, it’s not complete.” He said that his Instagram feed was found by a London publisher, which led to the Brutalist Sydney Map. Now, he has also worked with GeoTourist  to assemble the contents (‘Sydney Brutalist Architecture’) of a smartphone app, in collaboration with the NSW Architects Registration Board. The app has hotspots on its map of Sydney that you can tap on to listen to short histories of the buildings located there.

Harper takes his advocacy work seriously, and was awarded a Byera Hadley Travelling Scholarship in order to complete the research work that those deliverables are based on.

There were about 100 people – probably half of them associated with architecture – at the event yesterday at the Peter Shergold auditorium, an outside venue near Parramatta Station.

Some projects that Harper, Tabet and Ross talked about included the Endeavour Estate in Waterloo which was opened in 1977 by Queen Elizabeth, and which the state government is trying to empty so that the site can be redeveloped. They also talked quite a bit about the Sirius Building at The Rocks, the demolition of which was stopped by the Land and Environment Court in July. The building has 79 apartments and Tabet said that the LEC case is going to be challenged by the state government. Another building that was mentioned is the former UTS Kuring-gai campus which has been bought by the NSW Department of Education and will become a high school. The National Acoustics Laboratory and Ultrasonics Institute, Chatswood, has been bought by the Church of Scientology. Harper said that they have cleaned the concrete.

But the Bidura Children’s Court is Harper’s favourite brutalist building at present, he said. (I will be writing about this building in the next blogpost in my brutalism series.) Harper said that, internationally, the concept of brutalism had died by late 60s or early 70s, but that brutalist buildings continued to be built in Australia well into the 1980s. He said that brutalism, a part of Modernism, represented a break with the past but that later buildings here were designed with the context in mind.

Above: From left: Glenn Harper, Michelle Tabet, Tim Ross.

Saturday, 30 September 2017

Interview with Peter Woods: On West Papuan independence

Over the past two days we have heard news of a petition with 1.8 million signatures presented by West Papuan political activists seeking national independence, to the United Nations.  I have written about West Papua on the blog before but I wanted to find out more, so I approached Peter Woods, an Australian, to ask him some questions. This interview is the result.

MdS: Ok, so [the voice recorder is] running. Can you, Peter, just give me a little bit of background of yourself and how you got involved with the West Papuan people?

My involvement goes back a long way. My wife and I went with our little baby girl to Indonesia at the beginning of 1977 and we went to teach at a church school, a school for lay pastors, in West Papua. We first, initially, went to Java, to Bandung, to study the language, and then at the beginning of ’78 we were in Manokwari, the city of Manokwari, on the western part of West Papua, the eastern side of the bird’s head, quite a large town there. So, we were there from ’78 til 1983 and because of my wife’s health problems – she got chronic malaria – we ended up moving.

First, we got medical attention and then we went to central Java. We were aiming to go to the highlands but for various reasons it didn’t work out to go back to West Papua, which we were very disappointed about but that’s just the way it all worked out for us. We never thought that we would be involved again and while I supported financially some students for some years, it wasn’t until I made a brief trip in ’95 back to the Indonesian Council of Churches – they had their general assembly in Jayapura – I went back as the Anglican Church representative. And then it wasn’t until the end of ’99 and the beginning of 2000 that I began to be more actively involved, voicing my concern about human rights and the issue of self-determination for West Papua, which all of [the] Papuans who had spoken to me during the time that we lived there had actually told me about (and I said I couldn’t be involved while I was actually in the country otherwise I wouldn’t last very long). So that’s just the way it worked out.

And so, really, I suppose my involvement more fully has been since I met Jacob Rumbiak, who was a political prisoner for 10 years in Indonesia, and he came to Melbourne. So I’ve been, I suppose, advocating for West Papuan self-determination and drawing attention to their plight for a long while. While I was pastoring in the Anglican Church I brought two motions to our general synod in Melbourne about West Papua and both of those times – I think it was 2002 and then 2009 – they were supported unanimously by all clergy and lay people. So that was really good, because they had that on the books. In terms of what it does? Not a lot. However, it’s been useful for me to open some doors.

MdS: Jacob Rumbiak, when did he come to Australia?

He came in 1999 and he was - ostensibly - under house arrest. With the downfall of Soeharto, he’d been in – I don’t know how many - prisons throughout those 10 years and he was then released. The last time he was in Cipinang - I think - Prison with Xanana Gusmao. They were negotiating together as to who was going to push first, and so East Timor was to be first [followed by] West Papua, but it hasn’t happened yet for West Papua. So, he made his way to East Timor posing as a Papua New Guinea observer for the United Nations, and was able to get smuggled aboard an RAF flight out and got to Darwin. And he was given papers to stay. He’s now an Australian citizen.

MdS: So, he lives in Melbourne?

He lives in Melbourne. To be honest, despite my friendship with him, I think that he probably is the intellectual architect of the movement, has been for a long time. Together with those who were ex-political prisoners inside, [they] were able to form some unity organisations and then finally that culminated in the Third Papuan People’s Congress in 2011, which I went to. I was an official attendee though I didn’t actually go in because it was surrounded by 2000 troops and tanks and the whole deal, but I was able to get my recording devices in and so was able to bring out a lot of interviews and a lot of film [and] photographs about what happened there. And out of that the declaration was made, the one that wasn’t made in 2000 when they had their second congress, they never declared independence. They’d made the declaration then and they declared a Federal Republic of West Papua.

MdS: In 2011?

In 2011. The five key leaders of that were put in jail for over three years and Forkorus Yabaisembut was the president, prime minister Edison Waromi. And since then there’s been ongoing activism within the country and outside. And the good thing is the culmination of the three political groups – the Federal Republic [for West Papua], the [West Papua National Coalition of Liberation], and the [West Papua] National Parliament, all representing different resistance groupings - they came together in Vanuatu and formed the United Liberation Movement for West Papua. They signed what they called [the] Saralana Declaration [on West Papua Unity]. And so that was in Vanuatu. That was facilitated by the West Papuan group within Vanuatu and also the Pacific [Conference] of Churches. They facilitated that series of meetings and after three days they were able to come together.

So that’s the thing which really has put the international movement on a strong footing because over the years – and we’ve heard it said constantly, the Indonesians have said it and other international groups have said it – “We don’t know who to talk to because there’s so many groups.” But over these last three years there’s been the one united political grouping and as a result of that significant things have happened, for instance the admittance into the Melanesian Spearhead Group as an observer – hopefully they’ll be having the same footing soon – they’re now noted in the Pacific Island Forum (in the past they’ve been ignored), and a significant thing that’s happened which is what I’ve just noted recently on Facebook, was the presentation of the petition with 1.8 million signatures. There was a petition within West Papua, and also a petition internationally. And so Benny Wenda in the name of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua … that [petition] has been presented. That’s going to have huge repercussions, I think.

MdS: What’s actually happening? Where is that being presented to, which country?

Presented in New York. In September, they have their general assembly each year. That was presented in New York.

MdS: They have presented it [already]?

Yes. And so even though the vice-foreign minister of Indonesia said there was no petition – his name is Mr Fachir – but in fact it has been presented. Part of the terms talk about issues of human rights but mostly there was no genuine referendum given to the West Papuans in 1969. The New York Agreement was signed over their heads anyway in [’62]. And so that opportunity for self-determination is still to be played out and the West Papuan nation needs to be put on the list of countries yet to be decolonised. So that decolonisation committee, which is still a body within the United Nations, has to be activated for this.

And now, also, the good thing is that for the last general assembly four different prime ministers from Pacific nations raised the issue of human rights, and self-determination, for West Papua. There is a growing momentum and there is good relationship with that other political body which is called the [African], Caribbean, [and] Pacific [Group of States], they are going to find increasing numbers in that group to bring something to the United Nations. To make any change there has to be two-thirds anyway, so there’s got to be a lot of lobbying. But I think these things take a long time and it has been going on a long while. There seems to be a momentum now which hopefully will carry.

MdS: There was an ABC story about the petition that came out yesterday and it had a quote from the foreign minister saying that Australia recognised Indonesian sovereignty over West Papua. I was wondering what is the best way to go about addressing this … It seems like they did one thing for East Timor … And you’ve already linked East Timor with West Papua when you said that the two fellows were imprisoned together in Java. What’s the best way to go forward to change the mind of the Australian government about West Papua?

It seems to me that nothing’s really going to happen easily to change the policy of either the Coalition or Labor. That has been the stated position for governments since Menzies’ time. Menzies initially supported the Dutch plan.

MdS: What was that?

To bring West Papua to independence. So initially we supported the Indonesians, at least the unions did, in doing blockades to the Dutch, whatever, when the Indonesians after WWII declared independence and wanted independence from Holland. But then once Indonesia was settled (I mean, there was a variety of things that happened in their history) … So Indonesia, which of the islands were going to be in this new creation – because there was no such thing as Indonesia – once all that was more or less settled, Australia supported the Dutch in retaining West Papua because it was never part of the original Dutch East Indies, and it was in a different category. There was all of that history and then in 1960 the Dutch set about a plan to, over 10 years, bring the West Papuans to independence.

And so they had elections. They were more localised elections, but there was something called the New Guinea Raad – or the New Guinea Council – on which Papuans sat, and also local Dutch. That’s when they chose their flag - Nicholas Jouwe and others were the ones who were part of that – and a national anthem, and an emblem. There were a number of things written down, not exactly a constitution, but what’s tantamount to a formal preparation of a nation state.

Soekarno objected to that, declared war, made a number of invasions, incursions, in which they were soundly beaten by the Dutch, and also the West Papuans who were a police force, as well, and in the army.

But in the end they were bulldozed by America and there was a variety of reasons for that. Two principle ones, one [being] the political scene. Soekarno was seen to be cosying up to both China and Russia in terms of - they were non-aligned, but – coming under the influence of the Communist Bloc. And of course, this was Cold War time. And of course, the Communist Party was a huge party, [of] over three million members in Indonesia. And then also the advisor to Kennedy was good friends with a man who was the chairman of a mining company called Freeport Sulphur, and they were aware of the assaying that had been done by the Dutch in the 1930s, that there was gold and copper in the mountains. And so, for economic reasons America also chose to not support the Dutch.

And that’s when Australia, after initially sending representatives to the inauguration of the New Guinea Council, with the Papuans, changed its tune. And so, we no longer then were going to support the Dutch but we in fact were part of the architects of the New York Agreement, done in ’62. So essentially no government in Australia has changed its position since then. [Australia] raises issues of human rights behind the scenes but we’ll only publicly support Indonesia. And a few years ago, after the 43 refugees arrived and were given asylum here, and not sent back - from West Papua - then there was [a] tremendous diplomatic furore over that.

MdS: From the Indonesians?

From the Indonesians. They withdrew their ambassador for six, nine months and whatever. But out of that came the Lombok Treaty between Indonesia and Australia. And that’s pretty much locked us in to supporting Indonesia. So, there’s no sign whatsoever of Australia changing its position. And the things that were said by Gareth Evans and other foreign ministers about “the fools who were supporting [the] East Timorese quest for independence”, all of those exact things have been said about those who support West Papuan independence. There’s no difference. You can line them up side by side. Bod Carr said the same thing.

So, Australia would not encourage a move by the Melanesian/Pacific nations to increasingly support West Papua in those forums but in the past, [Australia has] been able to shut it down. But they have been unsuccessful now, especially because of the increased momentum through the Melanesian Spearhead Group and that’s why I say the Pacific Island Forum is now focusing on West Papua. In the past Australia has been able to shut that down.

MdS: You sent me that PDF about the Saralana Declaration, that’s a pretty important step forward because it unites all of the West Papuan independence groups under one umbrella, and so it gives more force to the things that they say. Would you agree with that?

Absolutely. All the significant international developments have happened since then. And there have been a few prime ministers from the Pacific that have spoken up at the United Nations, at the human rights hearings in Geneva, but not much has happened in the general assembly. And that’s why these latest public speeches by four Pacific nations including [the] Solomon [Islands] and Vanuatu have been so important and significant.

MdS: What’s the position of Papua New Guinea?

Papua New Guinea and Fiji at the moment are holding out. Papua New Guinea is a little bit like Australia. We’re very close to Indonesia geographically and therefore it makes it very difficult for them but there’s been multi- multi-millions from Indonesia pouring into these countries to seek to sway opinion and to stifle any support for West Papua. Indonesia has an unlimited budget.

MdS: You mean bribes?

Bribes and development, I gather. But I think they own the taxi companies and the markets. So, there’s a tremendous presence of Indonesia in Papua New Guinea. However, the grassroots level in all of these countries greatly supports the Melanesian people of West Papua and their right to self-determination. So that doesn’t always translate into parliament, however [there are] mixed messages: sometimes they say that they’re pro-West Papuan pursuing this, other times they’re not. And so, it’s probably difficult for the Indonesians to try and figure out what’s happening next.

So that’s where Australia is at. I think that if push comes to shove we will probably abstain in any decision that might be made at the United Nations, and maybe privately, behind the scenes, as they have been for many years, talking with independence people. That’s how it works, isn’t it? They have to say one thing publicly, diplomatically, and then other things also happen behind the scenes.

MdS: It’s a big thing. To get the Australian government to change its policy, especially let’s say, the Labor government, which is probably going to be elected in 2019, is obviously an aspiration of people like Jacob Rumbiak and the others.

We’ve spoke with many politicians over the years and we’ve made delegations to Canberra. The Greens have a policy of supporting self-determination. And there is a group called International Parliamentarians for West Papua, and there are a number of parliamentarians on this. And so, we’re really hoping that the people of conscience and of principle will in a sense cross the floor over this issue. People like Russell Broadbent who is a backbencher but I think a significant one on the Coalition. He’s very critical of the refugee policy. And I’ve seen him a couple of time about [the] West Papuan issue, he’s more pessimistic about whether there’ll be any change there. We don’t hold much hope but who knows. Anything can happen.

Who would have expected that John Howard facilitated the referendum in East Timor? No-one expected that. He was leant on by the Americans, who said, “You have to handle it over there.” And there was significant upheaval within Indonesia that allowed that possibility to happen. And if things had been different with Wahid - the president of Indonesia who was there for a while - around the turn of the century - he was very supportive of West Papua, allowed them to change their name back from Irian Jaya to Papua or West Papua - I think that things could have been different.

But Soekarno’s daughter got in and she changed her tune and so there we go. One thing that has had impact over the years is when there’s been pressure on Indonesia through sales of armaments – embargo - and also non-cooperation with the military. Those things in the past have impact. But currently America and Australian don’t have any energy for that.

Above: West Papuan independence activists holding boxes containing part of the petition that was sent to the United Nations in September.

Above: At the signing of the Saralana Declaration. From left to right: Jacob Rumbiak, Leonie Tangghama, Octo Mote, Benny Wenda, Rex Rumakiek.

Friday, 29 September 2017

A few observations on inequality

This blogpost started with a graph showing the way that incomes in the United States have become gradually less equitable since the 1980s, up until which time increases in productivity were matched by increases in real median family income. This graph is quite well-known and has been discussed in detail in some Wikipedia articles on inequality in the US.

The reason this graph and its message are so topical is because, of course, it’s outcomes like this that have fuelled the kind of middle-class discontent that led to the election of Donald Trump, who, we are assured, will take steps to further increase income inequality by cutting taxes for the rich.

Inequality is often measured internationally by what’s known as the Gini coefficient, which is an index that functions on a scale where 0 means that everybody has the same income and 1 means that all income is controlled by one individual. The US does quite badly in the OECD ranking using the Gini coefficient, as you can see in the following graph. The US is the country with the fourth-highest Gini coefficient, after Costa Rica, Mexico and Turkey. Australia is further down toward the middle of the pack.

The Gini coefficient for the US is demonstrably worse now than it was in the 1990s. I found figures comparing the US in the mid-1990s, when the Gini coefficient before taxes and transfers was 0.477, with the late-2000s, when it was 0.486. An even bigger difference can be seen if you look at the Gini coefficient after taxes and transfers (0.361 in the mid-1990s compared to 0.378 in the late-2000s). This second index represents income once redistribution has taken effect; “transfers” is used here to indicate things like welfare payments. So, in the US lower-income families are worse off now because they are getting less benefit from wealth redistribution. In other words, fewer taxes for the rich, such as Trump is recommending, is exactly what the US does not need.

Other things have been working to erode average incomes in the US as well, such as competition from workers in lower-wage countries, who cost less to employ.

In Australia, the Gini coefficient before taxes and transfers in the mid-1990s was 0.467, and by the late-2000s it was 0.468. So, it didn’t change much over that 25-year period. However, the Gini coefficient after taxes and transfers in the mid-1990s for Australia was 0.309, and by the late-2000s it was 0.336. This means that income inequality over that 25-year period has favoured the rich while the less-well-off have lost access to redistributed wealth.

Here’s another graph, this time from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), and it shows real median income over time. It shows that lower-income Australians have done worse than higher-income Australians over time. In this graph, the numbers go up to 2016.

The ABS numbers for wealth tell a similar story, as you can see from the following graph. In this graph, which includes numbers from the early-2000s and compares them to more recent numbers, the wealth of the middle of Australia has grown much less rapidly than the wealth of the wealthy. The wealth of those at the bottom of the chart has remained virtually unchanged over that 13-year period, while the numbers for the middle have increased only slightly.

In France, the Gini coefficient before taxes and transfers in the mid-1990s was 0.473 and by the late-2000s it was 0.483. But the Gini coefficients after taxes and transfers for the same time segments were 0.277 and 0.293, meaning that while lower-paid French people have also done worse over time, they still get a larger slice of the redistributed pie.

The following table shows the Gini coefficient figures used in this blogpost, all in one place. The table shows how redistribution works in a European country to even out inequality. Whereas in France inequality before taxes and transfers is the same, approximately, as it is and has been in the US, once redistribution takes effect there is far less inequality in the economy. It also shows that Australia is coming in at about half-way between the two extremes: between the US on the one hand and France on the other.

Thursday, 28 September 2017

Reinventing government one click at a time

Dominic Campbell of FutureGov appeared at this Rising Minds event in Sydney this morning. Campbell said that questions of power and equality drive him. He said that what he does is work against privilege.

"Digital is a paradigm shift," he went on. He wants to use the disruptiveness of the internet to increase fairness, but government so far is "really just spoofing it", he averred. They are mostly just wrapping a digitised veneer around a broken system.

To truly transform government means truly understanding citizens' needs, Campbell said. "How do you totally redefine government?" He likened the task to keeping a heritage facade but knocking down the rest of the building standing behind it but, he asked, can you ever truly recode the DNA of an organisation?

"Human-centred design is the way to unlock this stuff in the hearts and minds of leadership," Campbell said. He suggested trying to build organisations around the terms people google, rather than sticking with the existing definitions and silos of an organisation. You have to restructure along customer journeys, he went on. And as soon as you get into service redesign you get into organisational redesign, he said.

To achieve real change, you need to build parallel structures, then switch off the old one and transition to the new. He mentioned several times a Melbourne startup called Casserole Club, which matches people who need meals with people nearby who are willing to share their cooking. Casserole Club, he said, is the Tinder for feeding people. This kind of model takes out 50 to 100 percent of the cost of providing the service, he said.

He also mentioned the Public 100 accelerator program in London, and said that "no data about me without me" is a goal of his work with governments, citing his involvement in the child protection area.

About the personal profiles that social media companies, and other internet plays, keep about individuals living in the community, Campbell said that people don't really care about losing control over their online profiles, and that we need stories in the media to raise awareness about the dangers of control over this information by private companies who use it to turn a profit. Social media, he said, has already won the battle because of the user experience it provides to people.

Campbell mentioned an initiative by Steve Ballmer called 'Where does the money go?' Canberra could do with just being levelled, he said wryly. Government, he went on, should be an inverted triangle. "Those bits of government that deliver for people will be most legitimate," he said.

He also mentioned the rise of city states, and asked rhetorically how London can separate itself from Britain because of Brexit.

Above: With humour, Dominic Campbell showed the Rising Minds audience a 10-year-old slide that he had once used in presentations to government.

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Some facts about the study of homelessness

Earlier this week I contacted the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) to find out when the 2016 Census’ homelessness figures would come out. I was told the figures would appear in early- to mid-2018. International homelessness figures only cite the 2011 Census, notably an OECD report  on affordable housing, and I wanted to know how things had changed in more recent years.

In the OECD report, which looks at the cost of housing generally, and homelessness as a part of that, Australia comes out looking reasonably good in the housing affordability stakes compared to its peers. Compared to Finland, say, or France, or Sweden, the amount of income spent on housing in Australia was not high in 2013, which is the year the figures point to. The definition:
This indicator presents information on the final consumption expenditure of households on housing, water, electricity, gas and other fuels, as a percentage of overall final consumption expenditure of households.
When it came to homelessness, however, Australia did worse than Finland and Sweden and France, with almost 0.5% of our population reported as homeless in 2011. There are differences in the way the figures are collected across national boundaries, however, so it’s very difficult to make neat comparisons between how different countries deal with homelessness.

In Australia, people living in institutions are not counted among the homeless, for example. Australians who are counted as homeless fall into the following categories:
  1. Sleeping rough
  2. In emergency accommodation
  3. Living in accommodation for the homeless
  4. Living in non-conventional dwellings due to lack of housing, and
  5. Living temporarily with family or friends due to lack of housing.
Using these categories, Australia had 105,237 homeless people in 2011. France counted 141,500 people (0.22% of the population) in the first three of these categories, which means that the government didn’t count people in the other two categories as being “homeless”.

Finland also counted people in the first three categories and not in the last two, but it also counted people living in institutions, in its 2015 survey, finding 7200 “homeless” people (or 0.13% of the population). Sweden counted 34,000 homeless people (0.36% of the population) in 2011 including all categories used by Australia as well as people living in institutions (this included prisons, healthcare institutions, and treatment centres).

New Zealand uses the same categories as Australia, and found 41,207 people (0.94% of the population) to be homeless in 2015.

Australia’s homeless in 2011 were up on 2006 (89,728) and on 2001 (95,314). There were more people living in boarding houses in 2011 (21,258) compared to 2006 (17,329) but fewer people living in improvised dwellings, tents or sleeping out in 2011 (6813) compared to 2006 (7247). Most of the increase in homelessness between 2006 and 2011 was accounted for by people aged 25 to 34 years.

The ABS has spent time and effort finding better ways to count the homeless. It is clear that governments are trying to improve their responses to homelessness. In an ABS fact sheet: “In Europe this has led to the development of the European Typology of Homelessness and Housing Exclusion (ETHOS) definition (European Federation of National Organisations working with the Homeless, 2011). Closer to Australia, the ETHOS definition informed the development of the Statistics New Zealand definition of homelessness (Statistics New Zealand, 2009).”
In 2008, following widespread discussion in Australia about the meaning and measurement of social inclusion and exclusion, the ABS recognised the need to develop robust and transparent homelessness statistics across a range of ABS datasets. This decision coincided with the release of the Federal Government White Paper on Homelessness (The Road Home) (FaHCSIA, 2008a), which highlighted homelessness as an important social issue in Australia and identified the need to "turn off the tap", "break the cycle" and arrest chronic homelessness.
An article by Yale Global says that a shortage of comparable numbers is holding back efforts to fix the problem:
Obtaining an accurate picture of homelessness globally is challenging for several reasons. First, and perhaps most problematic, is variations in definitions. Homelessness can vary from simply the absence of adequate living quarters or rough sleeping to include the lack of a permanent residence that provides roots, security, identity and emotional wellbeing. The absence of an internationally agreed upon definition of homelessness hampers meaningful comparisons. The United Nations has recognized that definitions vary across countries because homelessness is essentially culturally defined based on concepts such as adequate housing, minimum community housing standard or security of tenure.
Second, many governments lack resources and commitment to measure the complicated and elusive phenomenon. Authorities confront a dynamic situation with frequent changes in housing status, and many communities have not established accurate trends of homelessness.