Q&A with Joe Miles, Pirate Party of Australia

September 5, 2013

With less than 48 hours to go before the polls open – and that may be a cause for relief or depression, depending on your political point of view – let’s step back from the major parties and take an in-depth look at a newcomer. The Pirate Party of Australia is one of a huge number of minor groups contesting this election, but it is far from the usual single-issue ticket.

The party has its origins in Europe, founded in 2006 and fielding successful candidates in the 2009 European Parliament elections. At the time of writing there are Pirate Party representatives in governments across Europe. The Australian branch was founded in 2008.

Through the wonders of the internet, I (virtually) sat down with Joe Miles, the PPA’s lead Senate candidate for Victoria.

CV: Could you tell us a little of your background, including why you decided to go into politics?

Joe: I’m a new dad, I’ve been working as a Welfare Worker since 2006 (ish) mostly working with people who have an intellectual disability and who are on their way into (or out of) prison. It’s work I’m proud of, and being able to look at myself in the mirror after work is a bonus too. Not realising it, I got into politics as a shop steward in my third job. It was the only good thing about that job. I began to read, and learn to speak up and speak out. I moved to queer politics somewhere around 2008 or 2009, and added deep-green to my pink flag-waving activities somewhere around Edinburgh in 2010ish.

Aristotle says we’re all political animals, and I think he’s right – we all enter politics in some way, I just decided to do it publicly and under the pirate banner.

CV: The name ‘Pirate Party’ opens candidates up to all sorts of lampooning and charges of being a single-issue group (as evidenced in the way the Sex Party has been treated); given that, why join and run for a party with that name?

Joe: I liken our name to “The Greens” – Green is a colour, not a political persuasion, but the name is the signpost to the idea. Any questions I get on our name get dealt with in around 6 seconds, especially on hearing about Pirate MEPs and Pirates in the Icelandic and German city governments.

To be honest, the name the perfect ice-breaker. No-one is guarded around people who call themselves Pirates – political conversation flows uninhibited, and conversations about solutions to problems are freer. This isn’t normal. The usual conversation is base and unhelpful, the name Pirate Party helps a lot in getting around this. I’ve had long discussions with people who wouldn’t call themselves ‘political’ about the types of decision-making they’d like to see.

CV: Let’s move on to look at specific policies. Your education policy would require a massive restructure for the tertiary sector, which is already overstressed in terms of teacher/student ratios and research/teaching balance. What is your timeline for that restructure, and how would you pay for these reforms, given your policy to reduce HECS-based funding?

Joe: The tertiary restructure is mostly to do with the third point; ‘Defund administrative functions and organisations associated with monitoring, surveillance, government reviews and data collection’. There’s a world of potential resources used for compliance that could otherwise be spent on instruction or research. These changes would provide savings, not more burden, and these savings could be unleashed.

There’s no rigid time-line for this, though there’s been consultation with ACT and NSW academia on this policy, and I’d suggest 3 years is the common wisdom. That’s for both the student-teacher ratio and the teaching-support ratio.

CV: On the subject of hate speech – many would say your policy allows an anything-goes approach not only in terms of speech, but also in terms of incitement to violence; how do you address that? Do you have a law enforcement policy that encompasses ‘hate crime’?

Joe: The policy covers speech that someone may be offended by, not speech which incites to violence. There are common law provisions against incitement, harassment, intimidation – that would stay in effect. Our policy is to remove an almost radical subjectivity from the system.

We propose repealing Part 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. Apart from the last point of 1(a), it deals with being offended. The last point (intimidation) can be more than ably dealt with by preexisting legislation. Most intimidation is (I think, rightfully) viewed as a kind of assault.

‘Hate speech’ involves an incitement to violence, abuse, intimidation or other discriminatory action. Hate speech is already effectively illegal, without the need for part 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. In fact, this Part adds absolutely nothing of value to public safety, but it does chill speech.

CV: You’ve called for a US debate style, which is arguably little more than a feistier version of ours. Often nothing is done to call candidates on their misinformation or failure to answer questions; how would the PPA ensure candidates are made to answer properly?

Joe: In US style debates the candidates are forced to talk off the cuff, they then can be followed up on and made to engage with each other. Good moderation and effective debate opponents would allow a kind of self-correcting that would incentivise answering questions well.

Though key here is an independent debate commission (or committee or whatever the name may be) – specific rule sets can devised and moderators can be tasked with things like keeping the candidates engaging properly.

CV: The Pirate Party says it supports Fibre to the Premises broadband; does this mean you support the ALP’s NBN project?

Joe: Yes.

CV: Your energy policy expresses support for the ZCA2020 Stationary Energy Plan; could you expand on that?

Joe: In short, we aim for 100% renewables inside 10 years, with a concerted program. It would be paid for by a partial sale of the project on completion, a levy and the fact it is a profitable exercise. We view it as not only an investment in our environment, but a quintessential financial investment – build this now to save both repair, maintenance and fuel costs in the future.

CV: Do you support an Emissions Trading Scheme? If so, what model?

Joe: A floating price doesn’t work, except for speculators. There’s been very little in the way of action in Europe considering the time an ETS has been running, contrasting with Australia – a flat price for a short period has solid results. It’s a cliché, but business loves certainty.

We support a carbon price until Australia’s investment in renewables is so great a carbon price (or any other mechanism, for that matter) is redundant.

CV: Your marriage policy calls for the Marriage Act to be repealed altogether. Such a move would likely be resisted by parliamentarians and by many sectors of the community, including those who advocate for marriage equality. Wouldn’t it be simpler to reverse the Howard era changes to the Act, rather than legislate an entirely new civil unions act?

Joe: Aiming merely to amend the Marriage Act is to aim to leave a loaded gun on the table – those amendments could be rewound easily by any theocratic-minded conservative government. As you’ve suggested, it would be simple to amend the Howard era changes.

That’s why we have as policy a new Act – any attempt at regressing would be obvious. Our societal view on the validity of romantic relationships (and which body defines ‘valid’) is evolving, this policy just keeps pace. There are always people resistant to change – that’s why people voted “No” in the 1967 referendum.

CV: Finally, if the PPA gains a seat in the Senate, it’s likely to bring with it a great responsibility in terms of balance of power. In those circumstances, would you go it alone or ally with a party with larger representation, such as the Greens?

Joe: We won’t join a voting bloc. We’ll vote according to our principles, with our goals being to get our policy aims realised, apply transparency provisions to all relevant legislation and make sure decisions of the House uphold human rights.

* * * * *

And there you have it. The PPA is no fly-by-night ticket; it takes its politics and its goals seriously, and it’s in it for the long haul. Its policies are more detailed than any I’ve seen published, even attempting to provide a general idea of costings. In terms of preferences, the party has achieved an unprecedented level of transparency, exposing to the public the internal workings of what can only be described as an exemplar of democratic process at work.

Whether the Pirate Party of Australia can secure a seat in the next Parliament will almost certainly depend on those preferences. Either way, I think it’s safe to say that there is real potential for the PPA to become a formidable force in Australian politics in time to come.


Party of no policy?

February 15, 2012

Now, you could be forgiven for thinking we’re in the middle of an election campaign. Between lobby groups buying up television advertising, drop-in visits from the Leader of the Opposition to every kind of business from dry cleaners to aluminium plants, and what seems like at least one opinion poll every freakin’ day, it sure seems like it.

There’s no election date called. There’s no election date even on the horizon. But the campaign is in full swing. Given this, I decided to take a look at what policies were out there from the ‘alternative government’.

Let’s see …

Repeal the carbon pricing scheme with all associated rebates, compensation and industry assistance. Presumably this includes the lifting of the tax-free threshold and pensioner allowances.

Repeal the Mining Resources Rent Tax.

Repeal the means test for the 30% private health insurance rebate.

Scrap the NBN. It’s unclear whether that includes ripping out the infrastructure already in place and returning those areas already connected to copper.

Close Trades Training Centres.

Rip up any deals that might be made with Malaysia regarding asylum seekers, discontinue community detention and reinstitute processing on Nauru and Temporary Protection Visas.

Well.

But surely there are actual, concrete, positive policies out there? Maybe the media just isn’t reporting them. So I swung by the Liberal Party’s website to take a look. And there they were. Policy documents. Policies on health, energy, transport, the economy … you name it.

But wait.

Every single policy document is from the 2010 election.

None of the mini-essays from the relevant Shadows date from later than 2010.

And the odd piece of writing from this year? Falls into one of two categories: either relentless criticism of Labor; or a promise to repeal, scrap or otherwise abolish nearly every major accomplishment of the government.

If Abbott wants an election so badly – as he claims he does – surely he should start releasing alternative policy? If it’s imperative to stop the government from implementing its policy, or – god forbid – being re-elected, why not show us a better option? Motherhood statements are all very well, but they are no substitute for concrete policy.

It’s really no wonder that the most common parody of the Opposition is that they are the ‘Noalition’.

And lest readers complain that I am unfairly concentrating on the Opposition, I’d like to point out that government policy is under constant scrutiny as legislation comes before the House and the Senate. Those policies can be thoroughly analysed.

It’s very, very hard to examine what amounts to nothing more than the word ‘NO’, repeated ad nauseam.

Perhaps we will get some real policy announcements from the Opposition when the election date is finally announced. But given their track record of refusing to provide policies that have enough detail to be verified?

I’d have to say … no.


The cynical exploitation of child abuse

July 22, 2011

Time for another guest post! Today’s offering is from writer and blogger Loki Carbis, who, in his own words, has ‘a lifelong addiction to pointing out that the emperor wears no clothes’. He blogs about life, popular culture and politics at The Centre Cannot Hold.

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Stephen Conroy was in the news again, and as usual, the topic was internet censorship.

It seems that three of our biggest ISPs – Telstra, Optus and Primus – have decided to voluntarily filter material related to child sexual abuse. In a bit of black eye to Conroy, they’re using a list of sites provided by Interpol rather than by the Australian Communications and Media Authority, specifically citing legal issues regarding the authority of the ACMA.

Everyone involved was quick to say that this is not censorship, despite it meeting every part of the definition of the term, and Conroy tried hard to spin this as a victory for his policy, calling it an interim measure while certain issues regarding the jurisdiction of the ACMA were worked out, i.e. the fact that it doesn’t have the legal authority to do what Conroy wants it to, and that the government doesn’t want to try changing the laws when they can’t do it without the cross-benchers’ support.

The lies can be this blatant, because after all, who’s going to stand up and argue against measures aimed at preventing child abuse?

This is despite the fact that it is painfully clear that this is not the only thing the government is out to censor. This is apparent from both from two things: the leaked blacklists we’ve seen to date, and from the ACMA’s own rather generous description of its role.

One of the blacklist leaks we saw last year was a list of categories that would be censored, one of which was swimwear – although I doubt very much that this means we won’t be able to watch Olympic swimming online next year. Another was lingerie, and yet it’s unlikely that the content of new season clothing catalogues will change much either.

As for ACMA, the standard they aim for is that a website “potentially contains child abuse material” rather than actually containing it (emphasis mine). And of course, there’s no burden of proof here – accusation is apparently enough. There’s also no mechanism of notification if your site is blacklisted, and no sanctioned means of appealing that decision.

One of the arguments we’ve heard again and again in this argument is that the internet censorship provision are just one part of a concerted move against child sexual abuse. But if that’s truly the case, the question needs to be asked: why is it that this is the only part we’ve heard anything about?

Even a government as inept at framing and selling policy as the Gillard government has repeatedly shown itself to be must surely recognise that no one is going to oppose increased spending on hunting down paedophiles? You would think that even they can recognise a chance to get the media onside for once, not to mention a golden opportunity to wedge Tony Abbott good and hard – even his automatic urge to criticise any and all government spending might think twice in this case. Not to mention how well this could shore up government credentials on the right. But no, they Gillard government remains committed to its policy of never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

There is no increased funding for relevant police units, no new international agreements with other nations and trans-national bodies, no money for advertising campaigns to get the public involved, no increase in the importance of the Working with Children check, or greater stringency being applied in making the check.

Why doesn’t the government go after the producers of child abuse materials directly? After all, that’s the point in this at which the actual sexual abuse occurs – looking at pictures of child sexual abuse isn’t a good thing by any stretch of the imagination, but it no more abuses the child again than looking at a photo of a corpse kills that person again. Attacking the problem at its source, rather than dealing with a symptom, might just work.

Why, if the government is committed to fighting this fight on a number of fronts, are we only ever hearing about one of them, while the rest of the government’s plans remain as invisible to us as they’d like their blacklists to be?


Abbott the wrecker – straight from the horse’s mouth

February 7, 2011

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott met with his Shadow Cabinet today. The topic was flood recovery, the aim to come up with an alternative plan to Labor’s two-pronged approach of flood levy and spending cuts. Tipped off that Abbott was going to interrupt proceedings to make an announcement, the media – mainstream, new and social – pricked up its ears.

Since the release of details of the flood levy, the Coalition have insisted that the entire amount for flood relief could be raised through spending cuts. To date, however, there have been no specifics. Apart from a re-hash of the ‘NBN is bad’ message and a vague notion that – because devastating floods have occurred – we don’t need a water buyback scheme, it’s been all about the rhetoric. There’s ‘fat in the budget’. There are ‘savings to be had’. Abbott is happy to sit down ‘in a spirit of bipartisanship’ to show Labor exactly where those might be. The Coalition, it seems, are great believers in the idea that if you repeat something often enough, people will start to believe it.

What we expected today, then, were a few details as to exactly where Abbott had found the ‘fat’.

What we got was five minutes of railing against the government – accompanied by Abbott’s trademark ‘I’m really savouring this moment’ grin – followed by a reassurance that people supported the Coalition, and that details would be forthcoming. Soon.

Shades of the Abbott-Hockey-Robb merry-go-round during the election campaign. Heavy on the sizzle, light – or in this case, non-existent – on the sausage.

But what we did get was the clearest possible indication of the Coalition’s goals in this Parliamentary session.

‘We will be doing everything we humanly can to get rid of a bad government,’ he said.

‘Every month that this government lasts is, in a sense, a worse month for our country than it should be … it’s our job to bring about change for the better.’

So much for ‘we’re just trying to hold the government to account’. So much for ‘we need to provide a credible alternative government’.

You can’t spin this. It’s a declaration; the Coalition are dedicating themselves to bringing down the Labour government, before July rolls around and the Greens take the balance of power in the Senate.

Listening to Abbott, you could be forgiven for thinking that the election campaign has already started. He accused the ‘Rudd/Gillard government’ (yes, he’s still using that line) of being ‘addicted to taxes, addicted to spending and … [having] no agenda for the country other than its own survival’. They ‘can’t be trusted with money’, and they know it. (The mere fact that they’ve established an oversight authority to ensure that all flood recovery money is properly spent proves it, apparently.) The Coalition has a ‘better’ plan, but we won’t find out about it in a hurry.

Sound familiar? Remind you of August last year? It should.

In the words of the immortal Yogi Berra, it’s ‘de ja vu all over again’.

There’s one crucial difference, though. It’s only been six months since the election.

That doesn’t seem to matter to the Coalition, though. Their entire attitude since the Independents decided to support Labor has been that this is not a legitimate government, and that somehow the Liberal/National parties were cheated of their ‘rightful’ place as leaders of the country. The ‘we were robbed’ rhetoric dropped off fairly quickly, but the sentiment remains. They protested that they weren’t just out to ‘wreck’ everything the government tried to do, but their actions showed a consistent, almost mindless adherence to the principle of ‘if Labor’s for it then we’re agin it’.

Now we have it confirmed straight from the horse’s mouth. Abbott says it’s the Coalition’s ‘job’ to change the government. The only way to do that is to force an election, preferably before the dreaded ‘Labor-Greens alliance’ comes into full effect. And – short of unforeseen circumstances necessitating a by-election – that means blocking the government at every turn, until there is no alternative for Gillard but to declare the government unworkable and call a double dissolution.

It’s an incredibly risky proposition. To make it work, Abbott needs the three Independents on side. That means either wedging them against their own electorates’ best interests, or convincing them that the government simply can’t deliver what it promised. Either will take a good deal of wrangling. Senator Barnaby Joyce in particular is vicious in his attacks on Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott, and even manages to incur the wrath of Bob Katter (arguably the most right-leaning of the three).

Even if the Coalition can’t convince the Independents, however, they can create a bottleneck. When nothing gets done, people get frustrated; and sometimes, the most appealing alternative is to simply wipe the slate clean and start again.

Whether Abbott can manage to bring down the government is arguable. What’s clear, though, is that he intends to try, and he’s not even bothering to hide it anymore.

Yesterday on Insiders, the Opposition Leader twisted and turned over an incredibly insensitive email asking for donations for the Coalition’s campaign to stop the flood levy that was sent just as Cyclone Yasi bore down on far north Queensland. He refused to take any responsibility, or even apologise on behalf of his party. In an otherwise lightweight interview, he stammered and sweated and would only say that it wasn’t his fault – and in any case, he was just concerned for the well-being of all Australians.

Today, with Deputy Leader Julie Bishop giggling at his side, he embraced the role of wrecker with a huge smile and undisguised relish. Gone was the serious man worried about small business and working families, the self-proclaimed protector of Australia’s standard of living. Instead we were treated to Abbott-as-headkicker, gleefully aggressive and seemingly interested in nothing more than the opportunity to usurp the throne.

It was all a little bit Richard the Third, really.

So the next time Tony Abbott or the Coalition stands up on television or at an event and says they’re just looking out for the ordinary Australian, remember his words today:

‘We will be doing everything we humanly can to get rid of a bad government.’

This isn’t about us. This is about ‘vaulting ambition’, that takes nothing into account but itself. And if we are thrown into turmoil by Opposition blockades, stalled programs and – potentially – another expensive election campaign and the chaos that would result from a Coalition government killing one initiative-in-progress after the other?

That’s just a price we’ll have to pay.


Tony Abbott’s economic opportunism

January 20, 2011

First, Senator Bob Brown displayed astonishing insensitivity by using Australia’s flood disasters to bash the coal companies and promote the mining tax. Then, Shadow Minister for Innovation Sophie Mirabella played fast-and-loose with the facts about Wivenhoe dam and exploited people’s suffering to espouse a climate change denial argument.

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott apparently felt it was time for him to have a turn on the ‘Capitalise on Disaster’ ride.

We had some warning of the thrust of his argument – he mentioned it last week (while the Brisbane River was rising to its peak). At the time, it didn’t get much media attention, which is understandable given the situation. Evidently that was unacceptable to Abbott, because he repeated and expanded on his initial remarks in a media conference in Sydney on January 18.

Abbott has a solution to the problem of how the government can assist the people of Queensland in flood recovery and bring the budget back to surplus in 2012-13 as promised. It’s a simple one – scrap the NBN and so-called ‘cash for clunkers’ programs and redirect unspent stimulus funds.

It may be that Abbott thought his solution would seem like a stroke of economic brilliance. In keeping with the Coalition’s ‘stop the waste’ mantra, apparently compassionate to people’s suffering and great for Australia’s economic position? What more could the people want?

Well, some actual thinking might help.

Abbott would have us believe that scrapping a multi-billion dollar initiative like the NBN is easy. Just shut it down, right? What he failed to mention is that the NBN is not a proposed program, but one in the process of being rolled out across the country. The first stages are already in place, tenders granted, people employed, contracts signed. These things can’t be unravelled with the stroke of a pen. At the very least, backing out of those contracts would open the government up to a potential mountain of litigation, with accompanying costs.

To trash the NBN now would likely cost money, not to mention the knock-on effect of hundreds of NBNCo employees suddenly unemployed, construction materials lying around unused, etc.

It’s a no-brainer that Abbott would then lead the charge in crying, ‘White elephant!’ Never mind that such waste would be the direct result of the government taking his advice. The Coalition would hardly be likely to pass up another opportunity to bash Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Communication Minister Senator Stephen Conroy.

And that’s the real point of Abbott’s announcement – opportunism. The floods are just another way for Abbott to reframe what he’s said all along – that the NBN is too expensive and unnecessary. Of course, he’s not going to say that. No, this is about saving the taxpayers from being hit with a levy to help pay for the massive cost of rebuilding much of Queensland. This is about helping the poor people who lost everything.

The subtext is clear: it’s irresponsible and insensitive of the government to build the NBN when people are suffering. We all ‘know’ that the NBN is not necessary – why, just look at how well the internet helped out during the floods. We didn’t have the NBN then, so that just proves we don’t need it at all. This is just another way for Labor to spend your money, because that’s what they like to do – spend, spend, spend. And now, look! They want to have their cake and eat it too. They’ll build this ‘unnecessary’ NBN, and they’ll tax you, the working families, to get money to do what they should be doing anyway – helping Queenslanders. You shouldn’t have to pay for their inability to manage the economy.

It’s a fatuous argument, riddled with holes.

Let’s take the most ridiculous of Abbott’s assertions – that the role played by internet users during the floods proves we don’t need an NBN. It’s an absolute fact that websites and social were hugely important. Police and emergency services used Facebook and Twitter to make announcements and quash rumours. People went out and took photos of encroaching floodwaters, and advised when they found roads cut. When scam artists decided to pose as charity collectors, Twitter exposed them and warned others. People were able to contact loved ones when phones failed, call for help (as did the Fairfield RSPCA, prompting a huge response from people willing to foster animals) and keep informed in an unprecedented way.

Nonetheless, users reported that their browsers often slowed to a crawl or locked up altogether, that their wireless servers dropped out in the severe weather, and they found their bandwidth choked as thousands all tried to find out what was going on. These are inherent problems with wireless – and yet Abbott would have us believe that we need nothing better.

Then there’s his argument that it’s unfair to ask the taxpayer to foot the bill for flood recovery. This is not only disingenuous – no matter whether the money comes from the NBN or a levy, it’s still coming out of taxpayers’ pockets – but sells the Australian people short. We might begrudge a tax hike to bail out a bank, give politicians a pay rise or prop up a failing industry, but when it comes to helping out those who have suffered through disasters, we’re happy to pay a little more. We’ll donate to appeals, take part in charity auctions, pay a bit more at tax time, give our time and labour, and go through our possessions to see what we can give. Sure, we might grumble at paying a bit more for our vegetables, but we do it.

That’s because the Australian people understand what Abbott apparently doesn’t – that the people in need are our neighbours, our friends and our families. That we know we can depend on each other.

In running this argument, Abbott has displayed nothing but rank opportunism and a woeful inability to understand how people respond to disaster. He tried to evoke the spectre of unfair treatment and oppressive government, but succeeded only in exposing himself as willing to use disaster and devastation to promote the same old political rhetoric.

And, coming from a man who was vocal in his criticism of Bob Brown’s calls for a mining tax to pay for flood recovery, Abbott showed himself to be as big a hypocrite than his parliamentary colleague Sophie Mirabella.

As a final observation, there have been two politicians whose behaviour has been above reproach during this crisis – and both could easily said to have been ‘on the nose’ with the public before. One is Queensland Premier Anna Bligh, who has shown commitment, determination and compassion – even to the point of announcing a full and transparent inquiry into causes of the floods and what might be done to mitigate future disasters.

The other is Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd. From being discovered in a Brisbane street wading through flood waters to help people evacuate, to interviews with the media, he has focused entirely on the people of Queensland. He’s refused to be drawn on political arguments like budgets and alleged state government mismanagement, and won’t comment on the kind of arguments advanced by Brown or Abbott. At every turn, he’s talked about helping people recover, rebuild and deal with the trauma they’ve undergone.

Curious, isn’t it? Bob Brown, Sophie Mirabella and Tony Abbott should take some time to look back at media coverage of Bligh and Rudd – and learn a few lessons about tact, appropriateness and simple humanity.


There’s more to the NBN than YouTube

December 21, 2010

The government released the business case for its National Broadband Network yesterday. In a marathon media conference, Prime Minister Julia Gillard, Communications Minister Senator Stephen Conroy and NBNCo CEO Mike Quigley talked up the high points.

In a nutshell, it boils down to: the business plan was examined and found to be good. At the most conservative estimates of uptake, taxpayers would still see their investment (now set at $27.5 billion) returned with a 7% gain. Wholesale prices range from $24 per month for 12 Mbps to $150 per month for 1 Gbps. Pressed to give an idea of what a retail figure might be, Conroy favoured the questioner with a pitying look and pointed out that you don’t show your hand when you’re trying to build a competitive market.

So, for about $1.5 billion more than originally announced, the minimum expected outcome is to pay back the investment and then some. The wholesale prices are far below the hundreds of dollars that were bandied about by the Coalition during the year. The country will be thoroughly connected, and the regions won’t suffer if the demand is likely to be low. The NBN will be available in places that private companies would consider too remote (read: unprofitable) to connect.

Cue the storm of criticism. On the mild side of things was the Coalition’s predicted response of, ‘Yes, yes, that’s all very well, but where’s the cost-benefit analysis?’, which is a question deserving of an answer. You might be forgiven, however, for missing that in the hysteria that’s building now.

Perhaps sensing that the average viewer really didn’t care about the difference between a cost-benefit analysis and a business case, the Coalition reverted to more high-flown rhetoric. It’s a $50 billion white elephant! It’s monstrous! (And no one can say ‘monstrous’ in those terribly disappointed tones like Shadow Communications Spokesperson Malcolm Turnbull.)

Senator George Brandis hinted darkly that the government must be hiding something. The NBN business case was supposed to run to 400 pages, but only 160 pages were released.

There was this from the Sydney Morning Herald. The NBN will cost $24 wholesale per month? Why, that’s outrageous! We can get ADSL2+ already for about that. Why should we be forced to pay for something we don’t want?

In The Australian, there was this assertion: we ‘know’ that most people will only want 12 Mbps, so why should we pour all this public money into building something faster?

The Herald-Sun cried, ‘Won’t someone think of the networks?’ After all, it warned, the NBN will kill free-to-air and pay television, because everyone will watch the internet instead.

And my personal favourite: the questioner in yesterday’s media conference who asked, in tones of confected outrage, why the government was willing to spend all this money on the NBN while people were stuck in traffic in Western Sydney and waiting for operations in hospitals. Is it so important to allow people to upload videos of themselves at high speed? What about our schools?

That’s a lot of objections. Taken at face value, they paint a picture of a fatally-flawed plan that no one wants and that will drag the country into financial ruin.

Funny thing is, most of those criticism just don’t stand up under scrutiny.

Let’s start with the ‘$50 billion white elephant’. This figure has been a favourite of the Coalition for months now. In fact, they’ve done a reasonable job of muddying the waters with it. Unfortunately, it’s a mythical number. The amount of money allocated from public funds is $27.5 billion. That’s it. The remainder, adding up to approximately $43 billion, is to be sourced from private investment – so even the total amount is less than the Coalition claims will be ripped out of ‘taxpayers’ money’.

Where did the $50 billion figure come from, anyway? Well, it’s debate hyperbole. It’s a figure that the Coalition used during debates on the Telstra separation bill and in Question Time to scare-monger about the NBN. How do we know it will cost what the government says, they asked. Maybe it will be $50 billion … maybe 100. We just don’t know. Except we do.

Then there’s Brandis, with his deep suspicions that the government are hiding a terrible secret in the unreleased pages of the business case. Why can’t we see them? What have they got to hide? The answer, according to Conroy, is just a bit anti-climactic; they’re ‘hiding’ commercial-in-confidence data. This is absolutely no different to any other business case. It’s common sense; if you’re trying to build a project with commercial and competitive intentions, you don’t go telling the world your fall-back position or your planned tactics to get the best possible return. You just don’t.

How about the claim that people will be forced to sign up to the NBN? Frankly, I’m embarrassed for Fairfax. This story was put to bed months ago. To trot it out again now just looks like fear-mongering. It’s very clear; there is nothing in the NBN plan that will remove choice from people. Everyone is free to opt in or to stay with their current situation. The fibre will be laid; that doesn’t mean you’ll be forced at gunpoint to sign on. In this, it’s no different to a telephone line. New houses are automatically supplied with the cabling for a telephone line – but the tenants are in no way required to sign up to a Telco.

Then there’s the ‘no one wants this’ argument. The thinking runs something like this; your average household probably doesn’t ‘need’ stupidly high speed connections to the internet. We can upload our videos now, so why would we pay more for something that won’t get us anything?

This is a pretty sneaky one. It’s arguable that many households won’t want more than about 12 Mbps, at least at first. The problem is that not every user of the internet is one of these homes. If you’re running student accommodation, you’re going to want a service that doesn’t slow to a crawl the minute half of the residents log on. If you’re a small business moving data, you want something fast. If you’re big business, an educational institution or a department at any level of government, it’s a no-brainer.

(And just by the way, there are plenty of homes out there with several members all wanting to access the net at once – and if you’re stuck on ADSL2+, you know the frustration that comes with watching your bandwidth grind to a halt because just one more person needs to do their email.)

And that’s without even looking at potential future needs. Conroy pointed out over and over that the NBN was ‘future-proofed’. What that means is that yes, right now it might be a bit more than the family at 47 Generic Street need so that they can do their homework and download movies – but the applications for internet communication are growing all the time. In ten years’ time, we don’t want to be in the position of having to start all over again, just to meet the demand. It’s called forward planning.

The dire warnings that the NBN will kill television might sound familiar. That’s because they’re recycled, with very little change, from the same warnings that were sounded when pay television first came to Australia. If people have pay TV, they won’t watch free-to-air, and people won’t invest, and there will be no good programs, etc. etc. Well, in over 20 years, that hasn’t happened. There are more free-to-air channels than ever, showing first-run quality programs from both overseas and made here in Australia. New programs are still being made here.

And there’s no reason to think this won’t continue when the NBN is implemented. Internet TV – either live stream or download – already exists. It hasn’t killed television networks anywhere in the world yet, even in those places where high-speed broadband is in place. The idea that we can have one or the other, but not both, stems from a false assumption – that there’s a finite amount of viewing out there, and not everyone can have a share of the pie. In practice, the reverse seems to be true.

What Internet TV is likely to do is democratise television. Currently, there are a few community broadcasters in Australia that limp along, supported largely by donations. They often have very weak signals, and can’t be picked up by many televisions – and if you have pay TV, forget it. Your tuner won’t even acknowledge community broadcasters exist. Using the internet removes the need for massive capital outlay just to get set up – signal towers, just for a start, become irrelevant. The internet creates a space, and where a space is created, it tends to be filled very quickly. In this case, it will be filled by those who don’t have the profile or money to compete with the big television networks and production companies.

Will these new internet channels be good? Well, as with current television, I suspect we’ll see a fair amount of rubbish. But it’s hardly the End Of TV As We Know It.

And so we come to the ‘people-are-dying-in-gridlock-waiting-for-operations’ criticism. When asked this, Conroy responded with barely-contained anger – and not without cause. This argument, frankly, is rubbish.

For a start, many of the problems cited are the responsibility of the States. Last time anyone looked, the Federal government had not nationalised roads or hospitals. Schools are slightly different; they exist in a strange limbo where both governments get to look after them (and, all too often, neither do).

Then there’s the implication that, by building the NBN, the government is somehow taking away money that can be ‘better’ spent on things that people ‘really’ want and need. This is called rank populism. There’s no basis to it at all, but it sounds good. No government projects have been starved of funds to pay for the NBN.

Far nastier is the insinuation that the government just doesn’t care about the real needs of the battlers. If they did, they wouldn’t be spending our hard-earned money on a ‘video entertainment system’ (to quote George Brandis on AM Agenda this morning). Conroy’s response was scathing; he detailed a series of initiatives that were either already in place or to be implemented next year directed at schools and hospitals, and joint projects with the State governments on roads and infrastructure.

To drive the point home, Conroy listed a handful of the benefits of the NBN. For health: E-health, the ability for ageing people to stay at home and be properly monitored, and better communications between health services in metropolitan and remote areas. For education: online learning, access for those in remote areas to real-time learning environments, and whole-class access to virtual learning environments all over the world. He even had an answer to Western Sydney’s gridlock: high-speed tele-commuting.

All of that is a far cry from the accusation that the NBN is good for nothing but allowing people to take stupid videos with their mobile phones and upload them to YouTube or Facebook. (And do we detect a note of snobbery in those who deride the idea of people uploading their personal videos and displaying them to the world? Why, I believe we do.)

So what’s left? Well, it pretty much comes down to the objection that there is no cost-benefit analysis. This is a question that keeps coming up – and the answers seem a little wishy-washy. Either there’s a problem with commercial-in-confidence data, or it’s just not possible to adequately do such an analysis on future benefits as yet unknown. The Coalition, of course, is having a field day with the latter idea.

Mind you, when was the last time we saw a cost-benefit analysis for a defence material purchase? Or new medical imaging equipment for hospitals? Now, some might object that we don’t need one for things that are self-evidently ‘good’.

But we’re talking about a massive infrastructure upgrade that will touch almost every area of Australian life – from traffic lights to train switching, health monitoring to real-time consultation, online and virtual learning to tele-commuting. We’re talking about putting in place a system with capacity to expand in the future and potentially transform the way we live. Might we not then argue that very high-speed broadband, made available throughout Australia, is also self-evidently good?

When did we lose sight of the idea that not everything in life has to be about profit? When did we give up the idea that quality of life may be just as important – if not more – as how much money rolls in?

We’ve seen higher education suffer because, somewhere along the line we got the notion that universities should be places of profit rather than of learning. We’ve seen health suffer because we figure that it’s more important to have a good profit margin than extend affordable health care to everyone in the country.

Maybe we should learn from those disasters and try looking at the NBN as something that builds and enhances the nation, rather than a bunch of numbers on a balance sheet.

And if that means we see a few thousand more drunk videos turning up on YouTube – well, I’m sure the country will be able to withstand the onslaught.

After all, we’ve managed to cope with reality TV and talk shows …


R-E-S-P-E-C-T

November 18, 2010

I have two girls in primary school. Along with their science projects, their times tables and reading courses, they participate in a lifeskills program. Some of the subjects covered there include how to deal with bullying and conflict resolution. Most importantly, they are taught some common courtesies of human interaction – not interrupting when someone else is talking, not trying to shout people down, listening and responding well to what they are hearing.

It all hangs on one word – RESPECT.

This morning Senators Stephen Conroy (he much-maligned Minister for Communications, Broadband and the Digital Economy) and Barnaby Joyce (Shadow for Regional Development, Local Government and Water) were guests on Sky News’ AM Agenda show. The plan was that reporter Ashleigh Gillon would first interview Conroy about the growing pressure on the government to release the NBN business plan, and later bring Joyce into the conversation.

Joyce had other ideas.

Conroy was in the middle of answering a question when Joyce decided to barge in. The studio microphones picked him up at first, but he could be clearly heard, raising his voice to drown out both Conroy and Gillon. For his part, Conroy seemed happy to sink to Joyce’s level, and in short order an orderly interview degenerated into a shouting match peppered with ridicule and stinging insults. Gillon tried repeatedly to regain some sense of order, pointing out that ‘Gentlemen, if you keep on talking at each other but not listening this isn’t going to work’.

Both men completely ignored her. Judging by the grins on their faces, they were both enjoying themselves far too much to worry about little things like courtesy, and the fact that they were live on a national TV program. It was a points-scoring match, nothing more, and frankly, a very poor example.

It’s called bullying – and Ashleigh Gillon was caught in the middle, doing her best to control the situation and being completely disrespected by both Conroy and Joyce.

Luckily my kids were already on their way to school, so I didn’t have to explain to them why they needed to respect each other when grown-ups – our elected representatives, no less – were ‘allowed’ to be as rude as they like. But they’ve seen Question Time before, and they’re well aware of the fact that our Parliament is, at times, a barely-controlled brawl.

And speaking of Question Time … maybe it was the long break between sessions, but so far this sitting we’ve seen MPs being warned, and – in the case of Christopher Pyne, Shadow for Education – actually ejected from the chamber. Speaker Harry Jenkins has delivered lecture after lecture reminding members that it is not simply a courtesy to listen to someone in silence, it is the rule – Standing Order 65(b). He might as well be reading from Alice in Wonderland, for all the notice people take of him. At times, even, members he’d just reprimanded jumped up to argue with him.

While all that was going on, both Opposition and government engaged in the same kind of ridiculous point-scoring we saw with Conroy and Joyce today. Gillard mocked Abbott, Pyne insulted Gillard, Hockey and Albanese traded verbal blows across the table, and Julie Bishop hissed

The Speaker has powers that people like Ashleigh Gillon don’t. He’s able to penalise MPs for this kind of behaviour, and while reluctant to apply those penalties, he’s shown he will do so given sufficient provocation. Being ejected from the chamber is no light thing – it shows up in Hansard, and it’s a black mark against the MP in question. It should be a form of public shaming, that someone is unable to control themselves long enough to take part in an orderly process. To look at Christopher Pyne and the Opposition yesterday, however, you could be forgiven it was all a big joke, and that Pyne was simply going to get a cup of tea.

And when these members return to the chamber? They go right back to the same verbal sparring, disrespect and rowdy behaviour.

Right now we’re waiting to see the vote on Greens MP Adam Bandt’s motion to get members to canvass their electorates on same-sex marriage, as well as some votes on whether we’ll finally find out the NBN business case and get better funding for mental health. All pretty important stuff.

And what happened? Pyne jumped up with a motion that two other motions be voted on – one of which would push the same-sex marriage vote back even further – and spent nearly ten minutes sniping at the government, accusing them of deliberately leaving those motions off the agenda. Anthony Albanese, acting as Leader of the House, returned fire with mockery and more stupid points-scoring. Already it’s become so heated that the Speaker has had to rise in his place – which is a signal to the chamber that everyone better shut up right now – and both Pyne and Deputy Opposition Leader Julie Bishop have been reprimanded.

It’s a pretty clear signal that what’s important here is not the substance of the motions, but whether either of the major parties can get in a few barbs and make their opponents look stupid and/or corrupt.

None of this is clever. It might be mildly amusing at times (we do like a well-delivered put-down, after all), but it’s no way to run a country.

So we wait, until they’ve run out of points to score and finally get on with some actual governing. Meanwhile, it might well behoove the major parties to listen to the words of a song that my children learned as part of their lifeskills program – and maybe spend a bit of time thinking about the kind of example they set, and whether they are proud of how well they are conveying the message that what matters is not substance, but the ability to browbeat and insult your opponent into silence.


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