Business voices competing for Tony Abbott's ear

Prime minister Tony Abbott's post-election declaration that Australia was 'open for business' needed fleshing out. Possibly it got that on Monday evening in a strident landmark address given by the chairman of the Prime Minister's Business Advisory Council Dr Maurice Newman. Newman said the economy was 'running on empty' and needed radical reform and fiscal discipline to avoid 'the prospect of growth with a zero in front of it'.

He criticised Labor for 'five long years of reckless spending, economic waste, class warfare particularly aimed at business, the mindless destruction of Australia's international competitiveness and the reintroduction of workplace rigidities'. He was referring to 'common good' policies such as the National Disability Insurance Scheme and the Gonski school funding reforms, which he believes are a waste of money (implicitly he discounts the role of education in boosting economic productivity). 

Newman regretted that the Coalition had 'limited its options' by making 'hasty' election promises to avoid necessary cuts to such reforms. He also urged measures to shift the balance of power from ordinary Australians towards big business. These include the easing of competition laws to give big companies the 'necessary critical mass in a small domestic market' to become 'national champions'. Is he talking about going soft on any collusion between Coles and Woolworths, or perhaps even allowing a merger?

At his media conference on Tuesday, Abbott denied that Newman holds sway over government policy. But Newman has been meeting with Abbott at least weekly since the election, and it's said that Newman's speech was prepared after close consultation with Abbott. 

It's Newman's job to lobby for big business against, as it happens, the common good. But even among some of his peers in the business world, he is regarded as arrogant and aloof, particularly on his unwillingness to accept the need for a reduction in carbon emissions. The Financial Review'Chanticleerobserved that 'his strident position on climate change was contrasted with the balanced views taken by Santos chief executive David Knox and Nestlé Australia director Elizabeth Proust on Q&A on ABC later the same night'.

It's to be hoped that Knox and Proust are among the 'range of voices that the Government takes very seriously', which Abbott alluded to in his media conference while trying to hose down suggestions that Newman is writing his government's business policy.

Another voice that merits a hearing is that of ANU economics Professor Ross Garnaut, who talks about 'policy making in the public interest' in his new book Dog Days: Australia After the Boom. Garnaut is one with Newman in advocating the need for fiscal restraint, but is critical of Newman's wish to 'put all the adjustment burden on vulnerable Australians when that's neither economically rational nor politically feasible'. Instead Garnaut wants what he calls 'shared sacrifice'.

Newman argues for tax reform that will shift the burden away from business towards workers, and does not mention a key concern of Garnaut's, which is the cost to our productivity of Australia's high rates of executive remuneration when compared with similar economies.

We can only hope that Abbott is in fact true to his word when he tried to assure journalists that he listens to a range of voices on how to sustain the wellbeing of all Australians, and not just big business people.

Eddie Obeid's need for legal aid

Corrupt former NSW Labor minister Eddie Obeid has sought public funds to cover his legal fees. In July the Independent Commission Against Corruption found Obeid and his family had made $30 million by rigging the tender for a mining licence. But Obeid and his legal team have argued the seemingly unlikely case that he was eligible for legal assistance under guidelines that take into account the public interest and the 'prospect of hardship to the witness if assistance is declined'.

The wealthy are more likely to know and exercise their legal entitlements than the poor. They can afford expensive professional advice to help them find loopholes in the law. This often involves self-delusion and spurious argumentation in an attempt to have it accepted that they are 'doing it tough'. Obeid is worried his costly legal battles are swallowing his ill gotten gains and that consequently he will end up penniless. He has already put his $10 million Hunters Hill mansion on the market.

Meanwhile those who are genuinely disadvantaged are too often crushed by poor self esteem, or are simply ignorant of their entitlements, and often fail to claim the assistance that is rightfully theirs. That is the conclusion from the recent Legal Australia-Wide (LAW) Survey that shows high levels of disadvantage are associated with a lower likelihood of taking action and seeking professional advice in response to legal problems.

The survey's key findings indicate that people with a disability, and single parents, are twice as likely to experience legal problems. The unemployed and people living in disadvantaged housing also have heightened vulnerability. The survey also found the Indigenous people are more likely to experience multiple legal problems including government, health and rights related problems.

It found a lack of awareness of free legal services, and that this is associated with lower levels of taking action and consulting legal professionals. In particular, Indigenous people are less likely to take action and use legal professionals if they live in more remote areas. 

A society that cares for its citizens should ensure that publicly funded legal assistance is delivered to those who need it, and not to those who simply want it. It seems our system is geared towards people who are capable and practised in helping themselves, such as Eddie Obeid, and that it leaves out in the cold those who live a more passive existence, often involuntarily. These people are the ones who really struggle to make ends meet and to resolve the conflicts that life serves up to them. They need our help.

Ja'mie's disability

TV viewers are alarmed that they can so easily identify with Ja'mie King, the studiously unlikeable comic creation in Chris Lilley'sJa'mie: Private School Girl, currently screening on ABC1. The 17-year-old school captain at the fictitious Hilford Girls Grammar on Sydney's North Shore is proudly racist, sexist, homophobic, classist, and more. 

Lilley developed the character with the use of recorded interviews with private school girls and a certain amount of strategic eavesdropping. It seems he also consulted textbookdescriptions of narcissism that point to shamelessness, distorted thinking, arrogance, envy, entitlement, exploitation, and lack of respect for the boundaries of other people.

There's another critique of educational privilege in Christos Tsiolkas' new novel Barracuda. The character Danny Kelly is from the other side of the tracks and was sent to a prestigious private school in Melbourne's east. But he remains an outsider. He calls the school 'Cunts College' and ruminates on the finer points of his classmates spending their summer holidays at Portsea and Sorrento as opposed to Rye and Rosebud. 

The novel reflects on a society that is crippled because it is beholden to a privilege that fosters class division, racism, and hostility to Indigenous Australians, asylum seekers, and others on the margins. 

But privilege can also work the other way. If the privileged are so disposed, their resources can be shared with those who are disadvantaged. But what matters most is not the amount of the resources that are shared, but the attitude of the privileged persons doing the sharing.

Ja'mie showed the wrong attitude when she appeared in the earlier series We Can Be Heroes (2005). She was sponsoring underprivileged Third World children about whom she knew little and cared less. The fundraising was all about her, and not the other people who could use her help. She could not feel their need.

People like Ja'mie have a pathological disability when it comes to being genuine in their attempts to do things for others. A few years ago, some privileged schools started to encourage their students to be 'men and women for others'. There were students who mocked this. Perhaps they shared Ja'mie's disability, or maybe they were just having fun at the expense of their more earnest teachers. Either way, some students took the message to heart and into their lives and careers, and found what it led to deeply satisfying.

While the character of Ja'mie is set up to be judged for her callous disregard for the feelings of others, it is not for us to judge her and people in real life who are like her. In time, they come to the conclusion that there is something wrong with their lives when they constantly feel empty when not performing for their friends.

For us, it is better to allow those who are 'men and women for others' to inspire us towards a life of empathy. Whether or not we ourselves are economically and socially privileged, the ability to feel the pain and discomfort of others is a personal asset that leads to deeper contentment and a life fully lived. 

Chopper Read and other people like us

Most people will not miss Mark 'Chopper' Read, because of his reckless attitude to human life and law and order. The 58-year-old standover man died from liver cancer last month. In his last interview, screened last night on60 Minutes, he boasted about killing four people, speaking in a manner reminiscent of the subjects of the current film about the 1960s Indonesian genocideThe Act of Killing.

Read's pride in his criminal exploits, and indeed Channel 9's giving him a platform to boast about them, stands at odds with much of what we value in a civil society. It is hard to conceive of him as anything other than a seriously negative contributor to the community. Yet at master of his own destiny, he had an ability to maintain his dignity, and in that sense it is possible to argue that he was — like Ned Kelly — a partially positive role model for today's prisoners, and indeed all human beings whose behaviour makes them an outcast and an object of scorn. 

The majority of prison inmates have come to crime through circumstances not of their own making, such as mental illness or a disadvantaged upbringing. They are further crushed by the system and objectified as 'monsters' by the media and public, even though in fact they are 'people like us'. Joe Caddy writeselsewhere in Eureka Street that labelling people as criminals denies that we have a good deal in common with them as fellow human beings. 

It is good that Read overcame this 'other-ness' but regrettable that he remained unrepentant and thoroughly evil in character. He was able to win a kind of public respect that is routinely denied to prisoners who are contrite but lack Read's celebrity. 

There are various ways of dehumanising people, and it is always wrong to do so, no matter what the circumstances are. Immigration Minister Scott Morrison is doing this with his instruction that departmental and detention centre staff must publicly refer to asylum seekers as 'illegal' arrivals and as 'detainees', and not as clients.

Asylum seeker advocates work tirelessly to restore the dignity that these people have lost through being outcast in this way. The asylum seekers are being made faceless through government policy. 

The creator of the website Marg Hutton attempts to reverse this objectification of asylum seekers with her publication of names of some of those who perished in the SIEVX tragedy in 2001. 'Ghazi Alghizzy — wife Fatima Jabbar Alidawi and four children, Mohammed (age ten), Hussein (age seven), Zahraa (age eight) and Alyaa (age four) all drowned.' Her meticulous research has yielded names for many of the ''illegals, and this brings home the humanity we share with these people. Like us, they all have their own stories.

There is also the example of one asylum seeker who has been able to resist this objectification. Hazara refugee Barat Ali Batoor is a photojournalist, and his image of a group of asylum seekers emerging from a makeshift gap in the deck of a timber boat bound for Australia was last week named Photo of the Year in the 2013 Nikon-Walkley Awards for Excellence in Photojournalism. His story is in The Global Mail, which published the award winning photograph.

Batoor is no longer an unnamed asylum seeker. He is an inspiration, in that he was able to rise above his circumstances, and in that sense he has won public respect like Chopper Read. Some would say that he simply jumped a few queues in order to be accepted as a refugee by UNHCR and gain resettlement in Australia, but it's also true that allowing human beings like him to master their own destiny will bring out the best in them and us. 

Canada shames Australia on CHOGM boycott

Canada's conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper has put Australia to shame by confirming that his country will boycott next month's Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Sri Lanka over human rights concerns.

Canada has criticised the Commonwealth for 'accommodating evil' by allowing Sri Lanka to host the event, while Tony Abbott has said simply that 'different countries have different national priorities'.

After returning from a visit to Sri Lanka in August, UN human rights commissioner Navi Pillay expressed grave concern about the lack of accountability, unresolved enforced disappearances, and decreasing fundamental freedoms.

This prompted Human Rights Watch to urge Commonwealth heads to boycott CHOGM, with Asia director Brad Adams declaring Sri Lanka's government should be shunned — not rewarded — for failing to hold anyone accountable for war crimes during the country's recent conflict. 'Attending a summit in Sri Lanka so soon after the UN rights chief decried a worsening situation sends the wrong message to the government and to victims.'

Abbott made it clear that Australia has no intention of following the lead of his Canadian counterpart Stephen Harper. 'Look, I explained to him that I think the Commonwealth is important and that's why I'll be there. Obviously, Australia has some significant bilateral dealings with Sri Lanka over people smuggling as well.'

At least the Australian Government has come clean and admitted that it is conflicted. In saying we have 'different national priorities' to Canada, Abbott has conceded that securing and maintaining Sri Lanka's cooperation in our efforts to 'stop the boats' trumps using the leverage we have at this moment to try to persuade Sri Lanka to respect the human rights of its citizens.

As long as Sri Lanka refuses to respond to the concerns expressed by Pillay, Australian Government claims that Sri Lanka is safe enough for the return of asylum seekers from Australia will look as ridiculous as those of Iraqi information minister 'Comical Ali' when the fall of Saddam Hussein was imminent. 

That is the impression given by Peter Arndt of the Brisbane Catholic Archdiocesan Justice and Peace Commission, who has just returned from a visit to Sri Lanka as part of a group of 30 Catholic justice and peace workers from across Asia and the Pacific. He said: 'It is outrageous that Mr Abbott is prepared to ignore the suffering and fear which is rife in the north of Sri Lanka in order to keep his commitment to stop the boats.'

Arndt suggested that the systematic way in which Tamil men are being arrested and detained indefinitely 'looks suspiciously like ethnic cleansing'. 'I wish Mr Abbott could meet with the women I met whose husbands and sons have been detained, tortured and, in some cases, killed over the last four years. I wish he could have heard the pain in their voices and seen their tears.'

Perversely it seems Australia's vow to push ahead with CHOGM in Colombo is largely about mateship. The Commonwealth, Abbott says, is 'amongst our oldest international associations'.

'There is, I suppose, familiarity amongst members of the Commonwealth which doesn't always exist in every other forum and I think it's important that those friends we have, we should keep. You do not make new friends by rubbishing your old friends or abandoning your old friends.' 

If mateship had prevailed during the apartheid era in South Africa, the apartheid regime might still be in place.

Tolerating corruption will destroy Australia's brand

Australia tied with Denmark, Finland and Japan for the title of the world's least bribe-ridden country in 2013. According toTransparency International'sGlobal Corruption Barometer, only 1 per cent of Australians surveyed admitted paying bribes for services.

Our cultural resistance to corruption has long been a major contributor to Australia's reputation as a good global citizen. From time to time there are well publicised cases of corruption within Australia, but they are the exception rather than the rule. 

However a few years ago we had the AWB oil-for-wheat scandal, and now there are allegations of corruption in the international dealings of the large Australian construction company Leighton Holdings and the Reserve Bank subsidiary Securency. The Reserve Bank scandal has been described by Dr David Chalkin of Sydney University as the 'worst corruption scandal in our history, not because of the amount of money that's been involved, but because the most respected institutions of our country have failed to discharge their responsibilities to the public'.

It's argued that it is impossible to do business in some countries without engaging in bribery and corruption, often at the highest levels of government. As a Sydney Morning Herald letter writer put it, if you insist that Australian companies are 'squeaky clean' in their international dealings, 'be prepared to see your superannuation funds shrink rather than grow'. The reasoning is that our companies can only expand overseas and grow their dividends by 'adhering to the local standards of business behaviour', however corrupt they may be according to our standards.

It is true that turning a blind eye to what we perceive as corruption may bring us a greater financial dividend in the short term. But in the medium and long term, it will make us poorer. Corruption and bribery increase poverty in poor countries that have the potential to be among the world's most prosperous. These include Iraq and Indonesia, where Leighton is alleged to have bribed officials. It is no coincidence that the least corrupt countries — Australia, Denmark, Finland and Japan — are among the wealthiest, while some of the most corrupt — such as Zimbabwe, Paraguay and Liberia — are on the list of the poorest.

This argument will appeal to you if you agree with British prime minister David Cameron, who this weektalked up the profit motive. But being 'squeaky clean' is not just good business practice. It's also an admirable quality to have attached to Australia's brand and the Australian character, so that if we believe in ourselves, we believe in transparency. 

It is a particular value that we have to promote to the world, in an almost evangelical sense. As Pope Francissaid in his La Repubblica interview a few days ago: 'Everyone has his own idea of good and evil, and must choose to fight evil as he conceives them. That would be enough to make the world a better place.'

School sport's level playing field under threat

Five of Sydney's prestigious GPS schools have boycotted competition with another member of their association, The Scots College. The five accuse Scots of offering sports scholarships, in breach of the GPS code of ethics, which stipulates that 'financial assistance to talented sportsmen shall not form part of the enrolment strategy of any member school'.

Scots principal Ian Lambert denies the school awards sports scholarships as such, and refused to tell Fairfax Media whether any premiership-winning basketball players were on a bursary or scholarship, citing privacy reasons.

Callers to talkback radio claim the practice of recruiting gifted sports people is widespread. The head of another GPS school — Kings — admits his school has 'offered inducements to a few good sportsmen' and that 'schools have long learnt the rhetoric needed to defend the deliberate importation of gifted sportsmen'.

The five GPS schools are taking their stand in an attempt to preserve the 'level playing field' that is necessary to ensure that everybody plays by the same rules and there is no external factor affecting the ability of players to compete fairly. It's about protecting amateur sport in schools from the professionalisation and commodification that has come to dominate sport in Australia and overseas.

Fairfax reports that Scots has embarked upon a program of 'buying' students of sports star quality in order to promote an ethos of winning ahead of the more traditional values that encourage the participation of all students. The school is equipped with a new high-performance centre and has a dedicated director of sports science who worked with controversial Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles rugby league consultant Stephen Dank. It would seem that it has moved far beyond what the GPS code refers to as 'the spirit of the amateur' that 'should remain the ideal'.

If teenagers with sporting talent are being 'bought' for the purpose of boosting the school's brand and business, it has to be seen as an exercise in human trafficking. Arguably pressure is being placed on these minors to produce a marketable commodity, and that's child exploitation. It's an an altogether different activity to 'playing' a 'game', which is what school sport has traditionally been about.

Amateur sport stresses participation and promotes the development of character, resilience and teamwork ahead of winning. It is opposed to the commodification of sport that is associated with the cultivation of an elite of highly paid athletes equipped to perform at a high level. Many would-be amateur sports people are not up to the standard of the professionals and are relegated to a passive spectator role in front of a TV screen. That's not what schools are educating students for.

Pope Francis' field hospital

Much is being made of theinterview with Pope Francis that was released early Friday morning. In particular the section where he compares the Church to a field hospital after battle and the first question is 'How are we treating the people of God?' The Pope's main point is that rules don't become a consideration until the wounded are healed.

In a similar vein, Vinnies CEO John Falzon said on Friday: 'There is no place in Australia for the kind of policy approach that equates to condemning people for not being able to walk up stairs while refusing to build a ramp.'

Discussing the Federal Government's Work for the Dole Scheme, he said the Government will do nothing to increase employment participation 'if it chooses to demonise people'.

Pope Francis says: 'We must always consider the person. Here we enter into the mystery of the human being. In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation.'

Falzon also insists that people must be accompanied and empowered where they are, and not have to wait until they fulfil various qualification criteria. 'People who are unemployed should never be forced to live in poverty. This is why Newstart still needs to be urgently increased by $50 a week.'

The odds are always against anybody who lives in poverty, especially in isolation. When those who are desperate feel they are being punished — or continuing to be punished if they have left prison — they simply become more desperate and follow a perilous course. They sit on the margins of society, often demonised for the addictions they inevitably fall prey to. 

To use Francis' term, if they are accompanied, rather than punished, they are more likely to rise out of poverty.

A particularly powerful media presentation of accompaniment was Steve Cannane's hour-long ABC radio interview with Sister Anne Jordan last Monday. She is coordinator of Cana Communities, a Sydney-based organisation dealing with people who have become homeless through mental illness and addiction, or are unable to make a start after leaving prison.

She says an 'arms length' approach to former prisoners does not help them to re-establish a life, and inevitably leads them to reoffend. '[Society] gives them $200 and say go get a job and a house. How can you do that? You can't even get a place to live in Sydney for that ... We need the community attitude to be one of welcome.'

That may be difficult if their behaviour is antisocial, according to our way of thinking. Jordan even tells of people she has welcomed setting fire to the shelter she has given them, and that this has not stopped her from welcoming them again after time away.

Francis' message is that people on the margins tend not to follow the rules, but that is a long-term goal that is secondary to the accompaniment we offer them as the first and most urgent priority.

Further reading: 2013 Social Justice Statement 'Lazarus at our Gate'

Julie Bishop's opportunity to press PNG on death penalty

Papua New Guinea's prime minister Peter O'Neill has declared his resolve to see the death penalty handed to the murderers of two porters killed during last Tuesday's attack on a group of Australian and New Zealand trekkers. 

'These are appalling crimes, and they attract the death penalty under laws passed by the parliament since the last election,' he said. 'At a time when we are seeking to increase tourism these crimes are an obvious setback — but we must not let them deter tourists visiting PNG, and our own people helping visitors in their travels.'

In May, PNG passed legislation to promote its use of the death penalty, following a number of high-profile and violent crimes such as rape, robbery and sorcery-related murder. Capital punishment had never been outlawed but there have been no executions since 1954, when PNG was administered by Australia.

Soon after the legislation went through parliament, then Australian foreign minister Bob Carr voiced our opposition to capital punishment during a visit to Port Moresby: 'I said to foreign minister Pato, Australia is opposed to the death penalty in all circumstances and we never cease to make that clear.'

In the wake of O'Neill's vow to make the attackers face the death penalty for their crimes against the trekking party that included Australian nationals, Australia's incoming foreign minister Julie Bishop needs to remind PNG that Australia remains opposed to the death penalty, and that PNG will curry no favour with Australia by executing criminals who harmed Australians. The involvement of the Australians as victims gives us the opportunity to make a representation without necessarily interfering in the sovereign affairs of another nation.

O'Neill is behaving brazenly when he makes it clear that, in seeking the death penalty, he is more driven by a desire to protect the country's tourism industry than seeing justice administered for its own sake. In a statement that eerily echoes the current state sponsored blood bath in Syria, PNG's Catholic bishops criticised the capital punishment legislation 'that draws Papua New Guinea closer to the point of legally killing its own citizens'.

In a statement released in May and signed by Archbishop Douglas Young of Mt Hagen, they were particularly worried that the enacting of the capital punishment legislation looked like a covert exercise of executive authority that lacked accountability:

It seems that the legislation was passed 'on the voices' thereby making it difficult for many voters to know the actual stand of their own members. The Attorney General noted that there had been widespread debate in the public forum but he did not indicate who had won the debate. Only the decision of the government.

The passing of legislation in such a dubious manner, and now the idea that humans can be executed in an effort to demonstrate to foreigners that PNG is a safe tourist destination, is a sign that PNG's law and order problem can be traced not just to an unruly criminal element, but to the country's rulers themselves. 

The moral point of difference between Labor and the Coalition

There was cause for celebration on Saturday night for both the Coalition and Labor. The Coalition was able to claim a decisive victory in the Federal Election, and Labor defied expectations and remains viable. But not so for vulnerable people overseas who will lose their Australian foreign aid lifeline so that the Coalition can fund its election promises.

Last Thursday, then opposition leader Tony Abbott announced the Coalition's proposal to cut $4.5 billion from Australia’s foreign aid program over the next four years. The proposed deep cuts to foreign aid will be used to pay for improvements to the nation’s infrastructure. 

In other words, people will die so that we can have better roads. This is consistent with the tough asylum seeker policies of both the Coalition and Labor which lead to people drowning at sea so that we may have more secure borders. It is even more scandalous if we consider that, for some time, funds have been diverted from the foreign aid budget to help cover the cost of running detention centres and prosecuting other aspects of government policy on asylum seekers. This has diminished the dignity of people, not helped to promote it, which is a major goal of foreign aid.

Caritas acting CEO Helen Forde suggested in a statement on Sunday morning that the amount of $4.5 billion in foreign aid could save up to 450,000 lives.

'As a nation we are more than capable of continuing our commitment to the world’s poor and we call on Tony Abbott as the next Prime Minister to reverse the proposal to cut $4.5 billion over the next four years. We are saddened by the increasing habit of our political leaders in diverting and proposing cuts to our foreign aid budget to pay for their domestic policy costs such as processing asylum seekers and building better infrastructure like roads.'

The $4.5 billion cut in foreign aid comes after both the Coalition and Labor backed away from a promise made during the last election campaign that by 2015, 50 cents in every $100 of GNI (Gross National Income) would be spent on foreign aid.

Duncan MacLaren is a former Caritas international secretary general who now teaches international development studies at the Australian Catholic University. He pointed out in an article for Eureka Streetthat well targeted foreign aid can represent very good value for money 'if owned by the people it was meant for, if there are adequate training components, if it doesn't encourage dependency, if it is channelled through local community-based organisations and if, in a world where violence simmers under the surface of many societies, it fosters peace'.

But increasingly it has been tied to purchasing Australia's goods and services, which is actually trade rather than development aid.

We can only hope that, if not reversed, the $4.5 cut over the next four years will represent a point of difference between the major political parties that has been lacking in asylum seeker policy. Labor might tap the Australian people's openness to facing moral challenges that were part of Rudd's successful pitch in the 2007 election campaign.