Saturday, October 05, 2002

DIY litigation

Friday's Sydney Morning Herald contained an article worth highlighting. It concerns a scheme by Family Court Justice John Faulks, who will launch a website later this month containing "a step-by-step guide to procedures in the court, where half of all cases are believed to involve people without lawyers.

The Web site will provide users with choices for each step of the court process and set out all the law relevant to that choice, plus explanatory material and official forms associated with it

Predictably, the NSW Law Society opposes the initiative. The Law Society is just about the most reactionary, ruthlessly self-interested industry body one could ever imagine. Its president Kim Cull "argue(s) the changes will let the Government off the hook from providing more legal aid funds - one of the causes of the increasing numbers of people going to court without a lawyer. She also argues some people deliberately choose not to use lawyers and they should not benefit from extra assistance."

In reality, there's Buckley's chance of legal aid funding levels being increased, and the Law Society knows it. They're much more interested in perpetuating a system where the rich who can afford a lawyer get a huge and unfair advantage over the majority of people who can't. In some instances, law firms act on a "no win no fee" contingency basis, but those arrangements are largely confined to more serious personal injury cases where the potential damages award is large enough to make it financially worthwhile to have a 'punt' on the outcome.

Of course, there are some aspects of litigation where having a lawyer acting for you provides a decisive advantage. The trial itself is the most important aspect where that applies. Knowledge of the rules of evidence, forensic skills, techniques of cross-examination, and complex legal argument are things you just can't learn from a website. But most of the preparatory steps in any litigation are clerical in nature, and can be performed perfectly satisfactorily by a non-professional with appropriate guidance. In fact, that is exactly why the larger law firms are such extraordinarily profitable money-making machines. Almost all the preparatory work is performed by paralegals, articled clerks and very junior solicitors, who are paid quite poorly but charged out to clients at premium rates.

Justice Faulks' DIY litigation website, along with a more interventionist, inquisitorial approach by judges, will be a significant step in the direction of a court system which delivers justice for everyone, not just the rich and well-lawyered. The scheme could and should be extended to all courts. We may even find that some small to medium size businesses, which use lawyers at present although at a heavy cost they can't really afford, will also decide to adopt the DIY approach, bringing in a lawyer only at trial stage. Of course, that is exactly what the Law Society is worried about.
Camp David con job

Uncle from ABC Watch has posted an interesting reflection on an ABC documentary dealing with the seemingly intractable Israel-Palestinian dispute. However, he has unwittingly perpetuated one of the great myths of recent history, namely the claim that Israel's Camp David peace offer was a generous one, and that Arafat's failure to accept it somehow proves that he is intent on terrorism and the extermination of Israel itself. Uncle said:

"It is hard not to judge Arafat harshly for his inability to lead the Palestinians into the form of statehood that was available at Camp David. "

Blogwatchers interested in obtaining a rather more balanced understanding of the Camp David offer and why it was rejected might want to read by The Myth of the Generous Offer by Seth Ackerman. And just to pre-empt the howls of outrage from the Israel lobby of the blogosphere, I deplore terrorism and acknowledge that Hamas and some other groups really are intent on exterminating Israel. But that isn't true of the great majority of Palestinians, and any peace process would have to start with the more moderate forrces on both sides trying to understand each other's concerns, and working towards accommodating them. That isn't going to happen by perpetuating the myth that Camp David was anything other than a cynical Israeli con job that no responsible Palestinian leader could ever have accepted.
Love's Labor Lost

Paul Kelly's article in today's Australian, on Simon Crean and federal Labor on the weekend of Crean's "triumph over 50/50 union/branch representation, offers a balanced and fair analysis. I especially liked this quote from ANOP pollster Rod Cameron:

""What's important for the next election is the whole raft of concerns that Labor is absolutely silent about, the changing climate of work and leisure, skills development, the revisiting of Knowledge Nation," he says. "Work and leisure is a Labor issue but it's being stolen by Howard. Crean's first task is to sort out what he stands for. He will succeed or not depending upon his ability to develop policies, to get the substance right. The trade unions can take a conscious decision to ignore these issues but the Labor Party can't. Its ideas and policies must be in the marketplace from early next year.""

Opinion polls show that Labor remains in with a chance at this stage of the electoral cycle, despite Crean's lacklustre performance. On the other hand, I'd bet they won't stay there unless Labor starts carving out some credible policy positions very soon. The best way of combating the inevitable Howard "wedge" blitzkrieg is for Labor to actually be seen as standing for something (preferably not just the latest John Laws or Alan Jones obsession dredged up by party focus groups).
Dirty deeds done dirt cheap

Right wing pin-up girl Miranda Devine writes in today's SMH on the subject of manners, respect and foul-mouthed abuse. Devine reports unpublished research by Centre for Independent Studies gurus Peter Saunders and Nicole Billante, suggesting that most "people express a distaste for foul language and a concern that we should show respect for others."

Of course, that doesn't mean that the very same people might not be prone to the occasional dummy spit themselves, but it probably is a genuinely held perception (although how high it ranks on most people's list of concerns is another question).

I wonder, however, how many of our esteemed right wing blogging brethren would sincerely embrace Miranda's concerns. When we were discussing "fisking" recently, I indicated that I appreciated good examples of it. I should have made clear that I meant sharp, witty dissections of op-ed pieces, often characterised by liberal use of ridicule and sarcasm. I don't include moronic, foul-mouthed abuse, nor do I have much respect for those who peddle it. That sort of writing is neither smart nor witty, nor does it effectively convey anger. It only conveys the sad linguistic limitations of the author. English might well be a great "slut" of a language, as Tim Dunlop puts it, but there are limits.

Friday, October 04, 2002

Parish Pump Picks
Pick of the Ploggers

I have decided to adopt Tim Dunlop's suggestion of moving to weekly publication of The Parish Pump Picks. It's the only way I'm going to be able to sustain the task.  Of course, today's effort only covers the 4 days since the last "Picks". The next publication will be next Saturday morning.

I intend continuing to limit the selection to the best 8-10 ozplogger items of the preceding week, which inevitably means that some worthy contributions will miss out. In particular, my selection criteria require a significant original prose content from the blogger. Thus, items consisting of just a link, a quote from someone else's work, and a line or two of original prose, won't get selected. That is not in any way to denigrate such an approach. It is, after all, the classic blogging style. Angela Bell, for example, provides an excellent example of that style of blogging, and is always well worth reading.

I guess what I aim to achieve by compiling The Parish Pump Picks is to demonstrate and make accessible the considerable amount of quality journalism and critical analysis being published on blogs, especially for readers who don't have the time to comb though all of them looking for the gold among the dross. In part, it's a reaction to ill-informed, patronising pieces on blogging like this one from The Bulletin.

  • A Pet Hate - from Bargarz.  Tim Dunlop replies with a robust defence of English as "a great big slut of a language, sleeping with whomever happens to be at hand and spawning many wonderful bastard off-spring" . Personally, I think you could do a lot worse than follow the rules set out in George Orwell's essay  Politics and the English Language.

  • What happens when a city runs out of land? - Matt from A Bright Cold Day in April muses about the growth of Sydney, housing prices etc. Sydney people seem incapable of talking about anything else. The sooner their property crash comes the better, I say.

  • Don't worry, it was only two... - Robert Corr on allegations of Australian SAS atrocities in East Timor. Those who would prefer to ignore the uncomfortable possibility that troops from western democracies might be capable of barbarous behaviour would do well to remember My Lai (summary from Professor Douglas Linder's excellent site Famous American Trials).

  • Professor Bunyip takes the birch to loquacious Sydney Muslim community leader Keysar Trad. However, the Professor seems to have missed the fact that the SMH reporter, whose article he critiques, was also gently taking the piss out of Keysar.

  • The failure of neoliberalism - from John Quiggin. I've already blogged a response, but it certainly deserves a place in Pick of the Ploggers.

  • Matthew Bates is a Condoleeza Rice fan - another quality guest piece from Matthew on Scott Wickstein's blog.

  • Paul Wright forensically fisks a particularly obnoxious anti-American piece by Kalpana Sharma.
  • Tories tops for suicide?

    A couple of weeks ago, Robert Corr gleefully reported, under the heading "Conservatives kill", a news item about a study which purported to show that the incidence of suicide increased under Conservative governments in Britain. A similar study has also been done in Australia.

    Now John Ray has blogged on the same topic, and linked an article which suggests rather persuasively that the "study" was dodgy. I suspected as much, and Rob probably should also have been a tad more skeptical. It was just too good to be true. I particularly liked the closing quote by the author (Katherine Mangu-Ward):

    Charles Krauthammer once said, "Conservatives think liberals are stupid and liberals think conservatives are evil."
    Malcolm makes a point

    It doesn't happen often these days, but Malcolm Fraser actually made a very good point in his op-ed article in today's Sydney Morning Herald. There are around 8,000 onshore asylum seekers who make protection visa applications each year, but who are not imprisoned while their applications are determined. Their treatment is in stark contrast to those who arrive illegally by boat, who are subjected to a harsh regime of mandatory detention and other discriminatory conditions even if they are found to be refugees. The legal arrival applicants are never demonised, or even mentioned, by vote-seeking politicians.

    As Fraser points out, it is by no means obvious that they are any more morally worthy, or any less guilty of "queue jumping", than the illegal boat people. In fact, in some ways the legal arrivals could be said to be less morally worthy, because almost by definition they have sought and obtained a tourist or student visa on false pretences, when their real intention was to get to Australia by any means so they could make a claim for refugee status. Moreover, the "legal" onshore applicants have a much lower success rate in establishing refugee status. In other words, far more of the imprisoned boat people really are refugees, and yet they are imprisoned for long periods while the frequently fraudulent legal arrival applicants are allowed to remain unhindered in the community while their applications are assessed.

    Nevertheless, there are several important facts that Malcolm ignores. First, it is by no means clear that recent boat people success rates accurately reflect true refugee status. It appears that a not insignificant minority simply succeeded in tricking DIMIA. Ali Bhaktiyari is not an isolated example. Something like 80% of boat people arrivals reach Australia with no identification papers at all. DIMIA really has little choice but to assess them on the inherent credibility and consistency of their story. If they are well enough schooled by the people smugglers, and sufficiently accomplished liars, they may well get a protection visa to which they are not really entitled. By comparison, applicants who arrive with valid visas generally have little or no opportunity to masquerade as someone else.

    Secondly, although the 8,000 legal applicants each year was a significantly larger group than the total numbers of boat people, even in the peak boat people years of 2000 and 2001, the fact is that legal applicant numbers have remained fairly steady throughout the 1990s and continuing. By contrast, boat people arrivals ballooned from a few hundred throughout the 1990s to around 4,500 in each of the 2 years preceding "Tampa" and the subsequent implementation of the "Pacific solution". Intelligence information clearly showed that the total would have continued growing. Thus, while it may well be true that there is no persuasive moral distinction between asylum seekers who arrive with a valid Australian visa and those who don't, there was a compelling pragmatic case for taking decisive action to stem the flow of boat people. The combination of legal and illegal onshore applicants in both 2000 and 2001 more than filled the whole of Australia's intended refugee and humanitarian quota intake of 13,000, leaving no room for offshore applicants waiting patiently in refugee camps in Pakistan or elsewhere.

    Lastly, although Malcolm is clearly trying to mount a case for boat people to be released into the community while being processed (just like "legal" arrivals), he fails to consider what actually happens to the large majority of "legal" arrivals whose protection visa applications are ultimately rejected. Nor, I might say, does DIMIA appear to make such figures available. Nevertheless, it's reasonable to assume that a high proportion of them "do a bolt" and disappear into the illegal economy before they can be apprehended and deported. The British Home Office was recently forced to admit that about 2/3 of unsuccessful asylum seekers in that country abscond before deportation. Australian figures indicate that there are around 60,000 people in Australia at any given time who have overstayed their visas and become illegal. In the year 2001, only 14,000 of them were apprehended and deported.

    I would use the contrasting treatment of legal and illegal onshore asylum seekers to make a rather different point from Malcolm Fraser. I think both groups should be allowed to remain at large in the community while their applications are processed (once their identities and criminal and medical status have been determined), but only if a secure national identity card system is implemented for all persons. For tourists or other visitors, a valid passport should be sufficient. However, for illegal arrivals and all Australian permanent residents, a secure national photo-ID card needs to be created and backed by strong federal and state legislation. Landlords and employers would be required to sight and record passport or ID card details before letting premises or giving someone a job. Failure to do so would attract heavy penalties. Measures of that sort would minimise absconding by legal and illegal arrivals alike, and would also reduce lots of other intractable problems (e.g. defaulting non-payers of child maintenance).

    Of course, the same leftie bleeding hearts who are protesting most prominently about mandatory detention of boat people would scream even more loudly if any such scheme was proposed. Personally, I can't really see a compelling case for an inalienable civil right to fraudulently pretend to be someone else.

    Thursday, October 03, 2002

    Don's blogging party

    Don Arthur has excelled himself today with 2 worthy contributions after a period of relative inactivity. The first is about bloggers and other complainers. Don points out the depressing fact that politicians and other complaint-receivers invariably view complainants prima facie as just loopy whingers who are best humoured but ignored. I can't link to this post, because Blogger's permalinks are behaving in their usual idiosyncratic fashion (a complaint which Blogger/Pyra Labs would certainly ignore if I bothered to send it to them, so I won't).

    Don's second article deals with alleged ABC bias, an issue also discussed recently at The Parish Pump (not to mention by John Ray and "Uncle" from ABC Watch, both of whom have a remarkable capacity to perceive leftist bias in the most seemingly innocuous ABC item). Don's article contains a lot of good sense IMHO, although "Uncle" and John Ray won't agree.

    However, even I take issue with Don's proposition that the ABC is effectively forced to select mostly leftie social commentators because of the paucity of intellectual quality on the right!! Methinks this says rather more about Don's biases than those of the ABC. I'm not a partisan supporter of either main political party, and like to think of myself as a "centrist". However, I certainly think there is a measurable left-leaning bias in programs like the 7.30 Report. Their selection of both issues and experts to discuss them is predictable and not well-balanced on issues which test the ideological divide. I'm not entirely sure how you could overcome this, however, given Katharine Betts' observation that such stances are typical of the educated "professional" class to which journalists themselves unavoidably belong. Nevertheless, there are credible journalistic and expert voices on the right, and the ABC should be trying harder to accommodate them, especially in its flagship nightly current affairs program the 7.30 Report. Maybe they could have a right wing co-producer and co-presenter to balance out Kerry O'Brien and whoever is the current producer.
    Tort law reform update

    I have just received an email from the NT government which usefully summarises the overall proposed government stance (at least in the NT) in adopting aspects of the Ipp and Neave reports. The email also attaches most of the principal reports etc on which the reform package is based. I would be happy to forward it to anyone who is interested (and you should be, because every State will be introducing a reform package along essentially the same lines). As I have previously observed, I generally agree with most of the proposals, although I suspect much of the legal profession will have a rather different view. here is the text of the email:

    "To the members of the Legal Profession

    On 26 September 2002, the Hon Clare Martin MLA, Chief Minister and Treasurer, released the details of the proposed 2nd Bill (*) in the Government's tort law reforms. This draft Bill follows various agreements reached at a national level on 30 May 2002.

    This 2nd Bill has been released to the public as a discussion draft preparatory to a Bill being finalised for the purposes of introduction during the sittings of the Legislative Assembly commencing on 8 October 2002, The Bill is expected to be introduced in the period 15-17 October 2002.

    The main provisions of the Discussion draft of the Personal Injuries (Liabilities and Damages) Bill 2002 are as follows:

    - An indexed cap of $250,000 for general damages (caps will not apply to hospital, medical, nursing and rehabilitation costs).
    - A cap on damages for past and future loss of earnings of three times average weekly earnings.
    - A minimum threshold for general damages for non-economic loss of $15,000. Damages for non economic below this figure will
    not be payable
    - Prohibiting recovery of damages for those engaged in criminal activity.
    - Providing that the taking of recreational drugs and alcohol will be taken into account when assessing contributory
    - Exempting volunteers from being sued where they are acting within the authority of their parent organisation.
    - Protecting good Samaritans, who go to the aid of a person in need of emergency assistance.
    - Setting standard, commercially realistic interest rates for past damages and discount rates for future losses.
    - Tightening the provisions where compensation in payable for voluntary or family carers to circumstances where more than 6 hours care is required per week extending for a period of six months or more.
    - Permitting courts to make orders for structured settlements.
    - Allowing people, especially doctors and medical professionals to say "sorry" without this being construed by the Courts as
    an admission of liability.

    The Chief Minister's press release along with the draft Bill and a summary can be found here. "
    Failure of neo-liberalism?

    John Quiggin has finally responded with his promised explanation for why (he says) neo-liberalism has demonstrably failed. His explanation reminded me of Mark Twain's famous remark to the effect that reports of his death were greatly exaggerated. John's definition of failure seems to consist of the fact that unemployment rates are up a bit in the US this year, and Tony Blair raised taxes a bit in his last budget. Not very convincing methinks. Blair is still proceeding with his privatisation program despite a pasting at last week's Labour Party Conference.

    John hasn't even mentioned Australia, whose system could now be described as "neo-liberal lite". Australia's economy remains apparently strong, despite stubbornly high unemployment and some other worrying signs.

    I'm no worshipper of neo-liberalism, in fact I think a moderate social democratic approach is much the more desirable approach. But neo-liberalism won't die merely by wishing it were so. Proponents of alternatives need to keep getting out and advocating them and, more importantly, pushing useless political parties like the ALP and Australian Democrats to adopt and promote social democratic alternatives and their benefits. Otherwise, we'll find that neo-liberal naked self-interest will prove remarkably durable, especially when bolstered with "wedge" politics scams (like Tampa etc) to divert voters' attention from the fact that they're being screwed by the big end of town. You'd reckon even the thickest "aspirational" voter would see that they're being conned if Australia had a social democratic political leader who was a competent communicator. That leaves out Simon the Whiner.
    Update - John Quiggin has posted an update which includes links to various other articles in which he spells out more clearly the basis on which he argues that the Blair government has quietly abandoned neo-liberalism. I accept his argument. Note that the comments section of John's blog on this topic also contains some useful discussion.
    Promoting neo-liberal nonsense

    I see that well-connected Liberal backbencher Julie Bishop had an article in the op-ed pages of yesterday's Australian, where she promoted the alleged benefits of the International Monetary Fund's favoured prescription for Australian economic development: cutting the top marginal income tax rate to 30%. Personally, I think we should just tell the IMF to mind its own business and stick its economic ideas where the sun don't shine. That's what the Russians did 3 or 4 years ago, and their economy instantly turned around from basket case to strong-ish growth.

    I suspect that Ms Bishop is not promoting these ideas solely on her own initiative. Some financial journalists well-connected with the Libs have also been pushing the IMF tax cut agenda in recent weeks. It all looks suspiciously like a kite-flying exercise for a forthcoming Coalition election campaign. I would be very interested in any "back of the envelope" calculations John Quiggin might be able to provide on the cost to revenue of cutting the top marginal rate from 48.5% to 30% (of course, it also involves cutting the second highest rate from 42% to 30%). At present, the top marginal rate cuts in at $60,000 per year and the 42% rate cuts in at $50,000. Since average annual earnings are around $36,000, the great majority of Australians would get no tax cut at all under the Bishop/IMF plan, while high income earners (who also benefited disproportionately from the GST changes) would do very nicely.

    Once we know the cost to revenue of such a tax cut, we can then ask Ms Bishop (and Peter Costello, who one suspects is really running this agenda) just exactly which government programs the Libs will be abolishing to give this generous tax cut to the wealthy. Of course, Ms Bishop doesn't look at that side of it at all. She thinks it "would increase the incentive to work, to save, to invest and, I say, to take risks. It would boost economic growth and create more jobs." Ms Bishop then makes the following superbly misleading statement:

    "It would at least put us in the race for skilled workers in a region where Australia has the highest personal income tax rates among our competitors ... "

    Funny, I thought we were quite a low-taxing country. In fact, the most recent figures I saw said that Australia was either the second or third lowest-taxing country of all the 48 OECD nations (i.e. the developed world) as a proportion of GDP. From memory, Australia had a total tax take of 30.2% of GDP, just behind the US with 28.6%. Moreover, the World Economic Forum (hardly a socialist body) recently ranked Australia the fifth most competitive economy in the world (up from 11th last time the survey was done).

    So what is Ms Bishop talking about? Well, the weasel word in the Bishop quote is "region". She's talking about the Australian tax burden compared with third world countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines etc. These countries typically have much lower total tax takes as a proportion of GDP (around 15-16%) than any first world country, for the simple reason that the vast majority of their population earn bugger-all, and therefore pay bugger-all tax. Moreover, these countries in general have very poor public infrastructure, almost non-existent social welfare systems, and poor public education and health systems. This is precisely the reason why they are poor third world countries. Is Ms Bishop advocating that we should aspire to third world economic status, or is she just plain stupid? I'll let you be the judge.

    Nevertheless, just to completely debunk Bishop's idiotic neo-liberal nonsense, I thought I'd do a hypothetical "back-of-the-envelope" tax comparative calculation exercise on an expatriate employee working in Indonesia and earning (say) $80,000 per year (or its Indonesian equivalent). These are the people Bishop appaently believes would be "incentivised" by a 30% top marginal rate. She says that "in a world where human capital is as mobile as financial capital, bright young things would be more likely to work in Australia if they didn't have to pay nearly half their income in tax."

    Well, leaving aside the fact that Australia has actually been experiencing a significant net influx of highly skilled employees in most categories over the last few years (consistent with being one of the world's faster-growing economies), and that the typical "bright young thing" (BYT) doesn't pay half their income in tax (Julie doesn't seem to understand the difference between marginal and average tax rates), how does the current Australian tax system compare with Indonesia for our hypothetical BYT on 80 grand a year? A BYT working in Australia would pay $25,280 in tax, while the same BYT in Indonesia would pay $21,250. A bit more, certainly, but I wonder how many BYTs would happily choose to work in a corrupt cesspit like Jakarta, in preference to Sydney or Melbourne, for a measly $4000 net tax benefit. I should be fair and observe that most fringe benefits are apparently tax-exempt in Indonesia, so the smart BYT with a co-operative employer can probably gain a bit extra there. However, it's hardly yuppie nirvana. Any notion that Australia is missing out on jobs or investment because we have an uncompetitive tax system is simply unsustainable.

    Lastly, that World Economic Forum global competitiveness study I mentioned earlier makes some fascinating observations about what is needed for a first world country like Australia to make further economic progress. Does it advocate huge tax cuts for the wealthy and corresponding reductions in government spending programs (the Julie Bishop/IMF prescription)? Well, no, actually. In fact it advocates almost the opposite:

    "Perhaps the hardest transition is from technology-importing, efficiency-based development to innovation-based development. This requires a direct government role in fostering a high rate of innovation, through public as well as private investments in research and development, higher education, and improved capital markets and regulatory systems that support the start-up of high technology enterprises... "

    That is, almost exactly what Barry Jones was talking about in his Knowledge Nation document, that sank without trace amidst howls of derisory half-witted laughter orchestrated by the same Peter Costello who I suspect is now pulling Julie Bishop's strings. You have to laugh, otherwise you'd cry.

    Update - Stephen Hill points out in the comments section that Ross Gittins wrote a piece in last Saturday's SMH which made some similar points about the IMF. Recommended reading. Gittins seems to think that Australia will simply ignore the IMF prescriptions. I wouldn't be so sure. I think the Coalition is softening us up for some more tax cuts for the rich and targeting of "dole bludgers". It won't be as extreme as adoption of a top rate of 30% (at least not immediately), because of the program cuts that would have to accompany such a large tax cut. However, the trend is the worrying thing: deliberately increasing inequality in the name of "incentivation" (I notice Gittins also adopted little Johnnie's unsuccessful election slogan of the 1980s), while spending less on things like education, R & D and health, when we really should be spending more.

    Wednesday, October 02, 2002

    Back to the Blogosphere

    Readers may have noticed the distinct absence of blogging at The Parish Pump over the last couple of days. I've been tied up in hearings in the Federal Court of the first native title claim on land in any Australian capital city (Darwin). It has been a fascinating experience. I learned, for instance, that the mangrove-covered sand island about 400 metres offshore directly in front of our house is an important Larrakia sacred site. It's the Younger Wife of Old Man Rock, another sacred site off Casuarina Beach further north. Young Aboriginal women, it is said, are forbidden to walk out to the Younger Wife (which you can do on very low tides) lest they fall pregnant. Aboriginal dreaming stories are usually anchored in commonsense, and this one is no exception. The Younger Wife is covered in soft sand and head-high mangroves; a perfect cool, shady, secluded spot for a forbidden afternoon delight with a young buck from the wrong 'skin' group.

    The danger of the Younger Wife is enhanced by another sacred site not far away, where white clay can be found in abundance. The clay is said to have powerful aphrodisiac qualities. If surreptitiously rubbed on the shoulder of a fancied member of the opposite sex, they will find you irresistable. It sounds a lot more romantic than Rohypnol.

    My evening blogging time, on the other hand, has been consumed by another task: building a website for Victims of Crime NT, a victim support group I co-founded a few years ago. Constructive criticism on design or content is welcome. Don't bookmark the site yet, though, because we'll be moving it to a more permanent address once the development work is finished.

    Monday, September 30, 2002

    Welcome to illustrious plogger

    I see (courtesy ABC Watch) that long-time economics journalist Peter Martin has recently joined the ranks of ozploggers. His initial post described Peter in the following terms:

    "I report for "The Business Show" on SBS television in Australia. 6.00pm Sunday nights. For most of the two decades before that I was the Economics Correspondent for ABC Radio Current Affairs. I am a former Treasury economist with an honours degree in economics. I am married to the award winning journalist Toni Hassan, and I have two children, Alexandra and Grace."
    Parish Pump Picks
    Pick of the Ploggers

  • Did George W Bush's grandfather help Hitler to power? (or is Bob Ellis spending too much time on the internet) - from Don Arthur

  • Angela Bell links to an interesting article called "When Bloggers Commit Journalism" in The Online Journalism Review

  • Tim Blair fisks Hugh Mackay's most recent column, an allegorical piece on Dubbya and Saddam as dodgy policeman and wronged(?) villain.

  • Mass demonstrations and great debate - Tim Dunlop links to an interesting piece on the interminable globalisation debate in the context of yet another S11-style demo in Washington.

  • Stanley Gudgeon delivers a left brain fisking to a recent Paul McGeough SMH article about Saddam and oil.

  • Anticipations of the Bush doctrine - from John Quiggin (John plays the Pearl Harbor card on Dubbya. But Pearl Harbor was a surprise attack. Hiroshima next?)

  • Alex Robson on the perils of macro-economic forecasting. Alex also worries that no-one reads his blog. I do anyway (if that's any consolation).

  • Bernard Slattery on an erotic aspect of the Harry Potter phenomenon (believe it or not). An article by Julia Baird in yesterday's SMH titled Celebrity porn a hit in Hornsby deals with a not entirely unrelated topic. I suggest Julia hasn't tried it herself, or she'd know about the sandpaper effect as the offending hair grows back. Very uncomfortable, as I recall it.

  • Jason Soon provides a link to an excellent repository of material on Hayek and hayekians. It's called The Rathouse.

  • Chris Textor discovers that parts of his readership are anything but loyal and tolerant of perceived leftist deviations.

  • Scott Wickstein pokes a toe into the global warming debate twice: here and here.

  • Paul Wright responds to my piece on media bias.
  • Journalistic bias?

    John Ray has gently chastised me for failing to reproduce on The Parish Pump a set of references he gave me to various journal articles about alleged 'leftist' bias in the Australian media.  John has now listed the articles himself, so I can achieve the same purpose by linking to his blog. I didn't list them because they are "hard copy" sources that I can't link to as such, and I wanted to read them myself before deciding whether they were worth taking seriously.

    Bernard Slattery also emailed me the other day taking issue with my suggestion that I couldn't detect any systemic "leftist" bias in the Australian media.  I suppose I should make myself clear. First, I don't doubt that the ABC manifests an evident left-ish bias at times (although not as extreme as some of the more paranoid, one-eyed Coalition barrackers assert). Similarly, there is a detectable slightly left of centre bias in some of the news selection and editorial decisions of the Fairfax press (The Age and SMH).   However, I don't accept that this is the case with op-ed pages (where scrupulous balance appears to be sought) nor in the letters pages.  I don't detect any left-ish bias at all in the Murdoch press.

    It may well be true, however, that the majority of individual journalists are somewhat left-of-centre instinctively. As Katharine Betts suggests in today's Australian, research suggests that "social professionals such as teachers, lawyers, journalists, social workers, clergy and people working in the arts" tend to support Labor's agenda of "multiculturalism, immigration, Aboriginal self-determination and closer ties with Asia. They identify with kindred spirits overseas and see the fight against racism as a core value." Other occupational groups tend to be more suspicious of such values.  One of the interesting things about these issues and groupings is that they don't coincide with a traditional "left-right" classification (which generally carries connotations of socialism versus capitalism), although they are certainly values that were promoted by the former Labor federal government. If it's true that journalists simply share with the rest of the "professional" classes a greater receptiveness to values of tolerance, multi-culturalism etc, I don't really know how one could go about overcoming such a "bias".  I certainly agree, however, that a politically correct, uncritical stance towards these professional class "core values" is undesirable.  Sacred cows should frequently be slain.

    Mugabe on civil rights

    It appears that the AustLII database (home to just about all Australia's online legal resources) is now back online. I will therefore be able to link numerous additional law journal articles in next Sunday's Weekly Legal Picks feature. In the meantime, I can't help mentioning another article from the Melbourne University Law Review written by Jenni Millbank and called  'Imagining Otherness: Refugee Claims on the Basis of Sexuality in Canada and Australia'.  The article starts with a quote from Zimbabwe's great leader Robert Mugabe:

    [Let the Americans keep their] sodomy, bestiality, stupid and foolish ways to themselves. ... Let the gays be gays in the United States and Europe, ... But they shall be sad people here.

    Robert Mugabe

    Manne on Iraq

    Robert Manne's article in today's Sydney Morning Herald focuses on the most dubious aspect of the new Bush pre-emption doctrine:

    For a preventive war to be launched, a state need only imagine itself to be under threat. With such an idea, the line between self-defence and aggression becomes hopelessly blurred.

    The danger of this conflation of pre-emptive strike and preventive war is aggravated precisely by the fact that the Bush doctrine makes it clear that the US reserves to itself the right to strike unilaterally, without mandate from the established processes of the United Nations. Under the new doctrine, then, the US may not only go to war on the basis of an imagined threat. It also arrogates to itself the right to decide alone when such a threat exists.

    Manne has a point. This aspect of the Bush doctrine, if applied generally, has the potential to make the United States a law unto itself. Moreover, it creates a precedent which other less democratic nations may rely on when they decide it suits their interests to invade a neighbouring state. The fallacy in Manne's argument, at least for the immediate situation, is that Iraq under Saddam Hussein poses far more than an "imaginary threat". That is persuasively demonstrated by his track record of invading neighbours, using WOMDs against his own citizens, and seeking single-mindedly to acquire further WOMDs and nuclear capacity.

    However, none of these actions show an intention to attack the United States itself. As Manne observes: "There is nothing in the history of either Saddam Hussein's Iraq or communist North Korea which indicates that insane behaviour of this kind is likely to occur." In fact, if one accepts the evidence of the Blair dossier that Saddam has had significant WOMD capacity (although not nuclear) for some time, along with missile delivery capacity, then his track record also suggests he doesn't intend launching a direct attack on Israel. That is hardly surprising, given Israel's possession of a significant nuclear deterrent and demonstrated willingness to extract Old Testament retribution.

    These considerations strongly indicate that a good faith attempt by the US is necessary to persuade the UN Security Council to adopt a strong new resolution on Iraq weapons inspections. The Bush doctrine in itself does not provide a sufficient basis for a unilateral attack, given that it probably cannot credibly be claimed that Iraq poses a direct or immediate threat to the US. There is no doubt, however, that Saddam will continue to be a destabilising and threatening presence in the Middle East, and a major source for funding and suport of terrorism against Israel and others (although claims of a link with Al Qaeda look dubious). There is also no doubt that he will continue to oppress his own people. Saddam's decade-long defiance of UN weapons inspection resolutions also poses a direct threat to any remaining UN authority as a credible guarantor of peace and security. In those circumstances, a supine refusal by the UN to pass or implement an effective weapons inspection resolution would provide a sufficient basis for a pre-emptive assault. Continuing game-playing by Russia and France will simply confirm that the United Nations, like the former League of Nations, is completely irrelevant as a guarantor of world security. Manne and other opponents of the Bush doctrine would find difficulty mounting a persuasive case that the rest of the world should simply allow Saddam to acquire nuclear capacity, because a couple of nations insist on vetoing effective multi-lateral action.

    However, accepting the necessity for decisive, effective actionagainst Saddam (as I do) does not preclude simultaneously being concerned about the risks of encouraging American hubris and imperial pretensions. The imperative to submit to a process of trying to convince the UN Security Council to act is not mere nit-picking. The creation of a precedent for unilateral "pre-emptive" armed attack on a sovereign nation, which does not obviously present a "clear and present danger" to the attacker, without even seriously seeking international support for such action, is also one which could come back to haunt the US and its allies in future. That is the reason why the US should exhaust diplomatic options first, not any naive belief that diplomacy is really likely to succeed. Nevertheless, if the Security Council fails to achieve a workable resolution within (say) the next 4 weeks or so, it would be unreasonable to expect the US and its allies to remain idle while Saddam continues to move steadily towards acquiring nuclear capability.

    Sunday, September 29, 2002

    Weekly Legal Picks

    Here is a link to the first of a hopefully regular series called Weekly Legal Picks. It links law-related articles from the mainstream media and scholarly journals published online. This week's is a bit truncated, because several law journals are housed on the AustLII database, which has been out of operation for several days. I will add articles from these journals to next week's Legal Picks (assuming AustLII is back online by then).
    Parish Pump Picks

    I think I'll make Monday a day of rest for the Parish Pump Picks. That is because Sunday still seems to be a day of rest for most ozploggers, so the pickings are fairly slim first thing Monday morning (although I notice Tim Blair has begun posting nice and early). I'll post the next Picks tomorrow morning, focusing on today's offerings.

    I also think I'll focus on "the pick of the ploggers" and give up trying to link the best op-ed pundits. First, it takes too much time. But perhaps more importantly, both The Age and Sydney Morning Herald move their articles after 24 hours to a 10 day archive adress. Unless you re-do the linking again the next day, therefore, all your links end up being dead. It's something for other ploggers to keep in mind. The Australian has a slightly different policy. It's op-ed pieces seem to stay in place for 3 or 4 days, and then get shifted into a subscription-only archive.

    Nevertheless, I'll still be happy to link any interesting international op-ed pieces tha readers might want to email me.
    A Question of Character

    This evening I've been compiling the first of an intended weekly Parish Pump Legal Picks, which will link recent stories and articles on legal subjects. While doing so I came across a journal article by Richard Fox in the Melbourne University Law Review, which merits a plog all of its own. The article discusses a successful 2001 High Court appeal against sentence by pedophile Catholic priest Father Vincent Ryan. It raises issues which I believe are of general interest, and also some of peculiarly personal concern. I hope readers will forgive me the indulgence of the latter. More ...
    In search of social democracy

    I noted earlier in the day that I took issue with John Quiggin's definition of social democracy. It seems to me that John is deliberately blurring the distinction between social democracy and democratic socialism.

    Obviously there have been some states where the first concept has in practice blurred into the second but, in my view at least, there is a critical qualitative difference between the two. Democratic socialism holds, like Marxism, that state ownership of the means of production is the most equitable and desirable form of economic organisation. That is, it's elective rather than revolutionary communism, hopefully minus the dictatorship element. More moderate forms of democratic socialism, however, allow for a degree of private ownership. Britain before Thatcher, and Italy until around the same time, were reasonable examples of democratic socialism.

    Social democracy, on the other hand, is essentially a more compassionate variant of liberal democratic theory. It emerged as the welfare liberalism of the later writings of JS Mill and others, and found practical expression in Roosevelt's New Deal. Social democratic theory holds, like classical liberalism, that individual choice, protection of private property, a predominantly market-based economy, and the rule of law are all core values. However, social democracy also involves a more interventionist role for government than classical liberalism, in the interests of equality of opportunity (not outcome), and reducing the more drastically unfair aspects of market capitalism. Thus, the social democratic state is more willing than a liberal democracy (and much more willing than a neo-liberal state) to attack predatory corporate behaviour, and to regulate for environmental, workplace and consumer protection in the community interest. A social democratic state also favours a more comprehensive social welfare system, and strong public health, housing and education systems. As such, it is likely to advocate a somewhat higher redistributive tax burden than a liberal democracy (although the fact that social democracies are market-based systems dictates that tax regimes must remain internationally competitive, all things considered). Social democracy does not emphasise or advocate state ownership of enterprise, although it may embrace public ownership in areas of natural monopoly or near-monopoly, or where the national interest otherwise requires it (for example, to ensure diversity of opinion in the media).

    It isn't clear to me to what extent John Quiggin accepts this critical social democracy/democratic socialism distinction. Some parts of his piece suggest we're talking about the same thing, others indicate a significant difference of emphasis. Socialism, whether in its democratic or Marxist variant, demonstrably failed in practice. Moreover, the one aspect of Hayek's work that I find totally convincing is his debunking of socialism. On the other hand, the continuing wealth and relatively strong growth of social democratic countries like Finland, Sweden and Denmark demonstrates that it remains a viable and successful form of economic and social organisation. Canada is an example of an even more moderate form of social democracy. So was Australia until recently, although the dismantling of public housing and education, not to mention wholesale deregulation, have reached a point where Australia, along with Britain, is probably now best classified as a neo-liberal state, albeit a less virulent version than its American parent.

    Another post by John Quiggin earlier this evening (titled "The NYT on US unemployment" suggests that the US neo-liberal economy's apparently strong job-creation performance through the 1990s may not be quite as spectacular as has been touted. The social democratic prescription begins to look even more attractive. These are issues we might expect to hear debated by Australia's Labor Party if it really aspires to national government. You would have thought Simon Crean might have worked out by now that a repetition of the Beazley "small target" strategy is a sure recipe for another defeat. Instead, the ALP remains a policy and leadership vacuum.