1996_02_february_health

John Howard’s policy of matching Labor’s bribe and don’t frighten the horses on Medicare may neutralise health as an election issue, but it will surely fail as a long-term solution to Australia’s health problems.

It fails to understand Medicare’s weaknesses and therefore fails to do anything about them. And without those weaknesses being fixed, Medicare fundamental strength will be eroded. Continue reading “1996_02_february_health”

1996_01_january_leader19jan

It is so easy. Out comes the credit card. A quick slash across the electronic reader and the purchases are taken away for consumption. Last month Australia put another $2 billion on the international credit card, according to figures issued yesterday. Next month interest will have to be paid on it, and the rest of the $180 billion we owe overseas. Continue reading “1996_01_january_leader19jan”

The wonder of Undara lava caves

January 1996

It happened only recently; just the other day geologically speaking.

A couple of hundred kilometres south-west of what is now Cairns, the Undara volcano erupted. That was 190,000 years ago.

Lava spewed from the volcano covering some 1500 square kilometres. Liquid lava is like water. It does not spread out as a sheet, but rather forms rivers. This is what the Undara lava did. One such river flowed, red-hot at 1200 degrees, for 160 kilometres before the lava stopped spewing from the volcano.
Continue reading “The wonder of Undara lava caves”

1996_01_january_governor

The move by Bob Carr to put the vice-regal officer in a city office has a precedent … from the equally republican-minded Prime Minister of the Irish Free State, Eamon de Valera.

In 1932, De Valera engaged in a concerted attack on the office of Governor-General and the incumbent, James McNeill, whom he saw as an unwarranted and unwanted English entity. Continue reading “1996_01_january_governor”

1995_10_october_leader10oct

The defection of British Conservative MP Alan Howarth to the Labour Party is perhaps more a sign of the changing philosophies of the two political parties than a sign of the man’s own change in allegiance. The Conservatives left him rather than he left the Conservatives. Or Labour joined him, rather than he joined Labour.

Of course, the defection might also be partly put down to Mr Howarth realising that Labour appears to be the party more likely to be the party of power in the next decade. Politicians like to be in power, whether for the altruistic reason do good things for people or for selfish reasons. Often the vehicle to power is less important than power itself. Fore example, many people in positions of power in the communist regimes of the old Soviet Union and Eastern Europe re-emerged after the downfall of communism in other guises.
Continue reading “1995_10_october_leader10oct”

1995_09_september_leader12sep rural aid

The Western Australian Farmers’ Association’s threat to withdraw support for funding CSIRO agricultural research because it is offended by one CSIRO scientist’s view is unconstructive messenger shooting. The scientist Dr Dean Graetz, said last week, “”I think the best drought aid is nothing. Rural industry must face the fact that droughts are part of rural industry and if you can’t cope with them you have no place in that rural industry. . . . We are subsidising people who are poor managers.” Continue reading “1995_09_september_leader12sep rural aid”

1995_09_september_leader02sep

The Leader of the Opposition, John Howard, has sensibly distanced himself from Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett’s slash-and-burn attitude to the Federal Public Service. Last month Mr Kennett engaged in an unthoughtful diatribe against the Federal bureaucracy, making unsubstantiated and inconsistent claims that the top public servants had failed to show leadership or contribute to Government policy. He said they were not like Victoria’s top public service who “”are very much full partners in trying to bring about a restoration to Victoria’s base.

The inconsistency has been in Mr Kennett’s criticism of what he called Labor’s politicisation of the top of the public service on one hand yet calling on it to lead and create policy on the other. And it is all right, of course, for top public servants in Victoria to be “”in partnership” with a Liberal Government.

In Canberra this week Mr Howard said, “”It is not appropriate in the modern Liberal Party for just generalised slanging of public servants.” It is a welcome distancing from Mr Kennett’s remarks and from the approach of the former Liberal leader, John Hewson, who stood on a platform of a huge reduction in the Federal Public service.
Continue reading “1995_09_september_leader02sep”

1995_05_may_leader08may

Conservative Governments in Europe have welcomed the victory of Jacques Chirac in the French presidential election. Leftist Governments in Europe sent polite congratulations. The reaction on this side of the world has been more uniform. Conservatives, centrist and left political leaders alike have expressed concern at Mr Chirac’s promise that he would resume nuclear testing in the Pacific. It is a justifiable concern.
Mr Chirac’s predecessor, Francois Mitterrand, ended testing in 1992. The Cold War had ended. There was no appreciably nuclear threat to France or anywhere else that required further nuclear-weapons testing. That is true today. The only possible nuclear threat is from nascent nuclear powers or from terrorists with very low-grade weapons. Neither of these threats can be met any more effectively with improved weapons. They cannot be met with present stocks and they cannot be met with more sophisticated stocks. Indeed, the way to security from nuclear weapons lies in all nuclear nations reducing and eliminating their stocks and in preventing their spread to other nations.
The only possible reason for a resumption of testing is as a macho demonstration to show who is boss. Whatever it might do for Mr Chirac’s popularity at home, it will not make France popular in the Pacific.
Fortunately, Mr Chirac’s nationalistic noises on the election campaign trail have been qualified after the event. It now appears that Mr Chirac will seek advice as to whether the testing is necessary. If good sense prevails the idea will be dropped. Nuclear testing is environmentally destructive and militarily unnecessary. The Australian and New Zealand Foreign Ministers have rightly said that any resumption of testing would strain relations with France.
Testing aside, Mr Chirac’s election ends a period of “”cohabitation” government in France under which a Socialist President had to “”cohabit” with a rightist Parliament and Prime Minister. It was not a very satisfactory arrangement. Nor would it be if the situation were reversed, as it may well be in the next few years if the Socialists do well in parliamentary elections.
The essential problem is that while both the Prime Minister through the elected Parliament and the directly elected President have a claim to a popular mandate there is no formal structure for resolution of conflict between the two. The election of Mr Chirac has ended “”cohabitation” for now, but the underlying potential for instability remains.

1995_02_february_column21jan

Paul Keating likes to break new ground. He was at it again on Sunday night. There he was on Kerry Packer’s television station accusing Packer of stealing from the Australian taxpayer about seven or eight billion dollars through lowering the value of Telecom with his Optus pay-TV deal. He likened this “”scam” to a scam by convicted former NSW Chief Magistrate Murray Farquhar’s reported attempt to take the gold reserves from the Philippines National Bank.

Why was this breaking new ground?

Well, it is grossly defamatory and every newspaper in the country reported it without having to think twice. I’ll leave aside for the fact that Keating was talking on Packer’s own station and Packer is unlikely to sue himself. But as a general principle if you call someone a grand-scale thief on national television you could expect to go down in a defamation action for lots of money. Also any newspaper that repeated the report would also go down, so newspapers would be wary of repeating the defamation.

Any decent defamation lawyer would have extracted the imputation that Packer was a thief from what Keating had said, especially as Keating had likened Packer to Farquhar. The new ground is that the imputation was published widely and nothing will come of it.

This is because of last year’s High Court ruling that the Federal Constitution carries an implied freedom of political communication. The court said this was because the Constitution set up a parliamentary democracy and for that to run properly the people have to have freedom of political communication. It meant, in the case before the court, that Bruce Ruxton could make some fairly barbed remarks about a Federal MP in a letter to a Melbourne newspaper. It meant the West Australian could make some barbed remarks about MPs going on overseas trips.

The new ground Keating is breaking is when the comments go the other way _ from the MP about other people.

A lot of discussion over the years about free speech has been about public figures. In America the constitutional written guarantee of free speech centres around a public figure test (though it is weaker now than it was). The basic theory is that you can say things about public figures if you have an honest and reasonable belief they are true, even if they turn out later to be false or unproved. Australian politicians have shied away from that approach. After all, they are public figures and they would not want to be singled out as a special defamation target. So we have had the strict approach of “”prove it’s true or pay up” _ until last year at least when the High Court gave us this freedom of political communication.

Thinking about Keating’s remarks, I suspect that the freedom of political communication runs to the republication of anything the Prime Minister says. Any fair and accurate report of what he says would be immune from a defamation action. So if you accurately report his defamatory utterances about Kerry Packer, or John Smith, you cannot be sued, even if they turn out to be false _ and we can presume here that Packer is not a thief on a grand scale. And it is too bad for Packer and John Smith.

It may well be that the High Court’s freedom rule runs to the communication by the media of anything any MP. The rules outside the Parliament may be about the same as the rules inside. Of course, logic and commonsense would have dictated that this should have been the case, but it has taken a long time coming.

A further point about the High Court’s ruling is its practical on-the-ground effect. While the academics await the next round of judgments from various courts to see how far it runs, media organisations and their lawyers are dealing with it on the ground.

One of the big factors in weighing up whether to publish something you “”know” is true but would not be able to prove under the common-law’s asinine evidence rules is the hurdles (practical and legal) that might face the person suing you. If you add to those hurdles the possibility of a “”freedom-of-political-communication” defence _ laced as it is with uncertainty and expense _ it moves the balance towards publication and away from self-censorship. The Keating exercise on Sunday _ calling Packer a thief and getting away with it _ raises the height of that hurdle and the cause of free speech.

It is about time Paul Keating did something useful with his big mouth.

1995_02_february_column07feb

I cannot think of a less deserving class of people than the one which cleaned up after the Federal Court’s decision on copyright last week _ union officials.

At stake were the royalties for copying newspaper articles in educational institutions and government departments. The people who missed out were school-children, parents, taxpayers and the people who paid for the creation of the works under dispute in the first place _ the newspaper proprietors.

The dispute has been going on for five years and has been marked by union greed, inaction and protection of mates by the Federal Government and utter incompetence by the media proprietors. The seeds of the strife go back to the 1960s when the key section in the Copyright Act was enacted. Generally copyright goes to authors of works, but if they are in employment then it goes to the employer. An exception was made for journalists working on newspapers and periodicals _ just in case they wanted to produce a book of their works.

The law said that the employer got the copyright for publication in any newspaper or periodical or broadcast, but “”not otherwise”. This was drafted before photocopiers were invented. The “”not otherwise” was meant to refer to books, not photocopying or electronic storage. In the typically dilatory way Federal Parliament deals with copyright, nothing was done about it. Later the Copyright Act gave goverment bodies and educational institutions the right to copy any material provided they paid copyright owners. A sampling and levy scheme has been set up run by the Copyright Agency Ltd (CAL). It samples copying, collects fees and distributes them to copyright owners.

The journalists union thought it could put its snout in the trough by claiming to represent all journalists and collect on their behalf. The money would be given to any individuals who claimed (precious few) and the rest would go on the union’s pursuit of copyright issues _ pleasant junkets to Berne and elsewhere for union officials. The gutless Federal Government refused to update the law for fear of upsetting a union. So the media proprietors who pay the journalists’ wages and provide them with research resources could do nothing to collect money when articles from their papers were copied. This money built up very quickly and is now several million dollars a year.

The proprietors then launched a foolhardy action in the Federal Court asserting they owned at least part of the copyright and to prevent CAL from distributing it. Inevitably it failed. The union was not a party, but it will get the bulk of the spoils. CAL intends to distribute the bulk of the fees collected for newspaper copying to the union because it has asserted (in my view spuriously) that it has copyright in the journalists’ work by virtue of membership rules. And of course the richer a union the harder time it can give the employer who passes the resulting the costs to you, dear reader and advertiser. It gets worse. If the law were changed so the proprietors (like every other employer) got the copyright, the proprietors say they would waive copyright royalties for educational institutions. Instead, money goes from struggling schools to undeserving union officials.

As for the royalties from government copying of newspapers, it is a great big freebie going from taxpayers to a union that contributed not one whit to the intellectual or economic input that created the works. The proprietors bungled. They knew this was coming several years ago and should have insisted that all new journalist employees sign a copyright agreement before getting a job. With fairly high turnover, they would own much of the copyright by now. What is to be done? Individual journalists should join CAL (phone 008 800875) and demand they be paid individually so the money does not go to the undeserving union. They can then use the money for some suitable educational purpose.

I figured this fiasco was coming two years ago and did precisely that. I got $500 last year. Money that morally belongs to The Canberra Times, so I bought a CD-ROM drive to make legal research for articles easier. If Parliament won’t do it, you have to take the law into your own hands.