Turnbull's NBN will disempower the poor

If completed, Labor's rollout of the National Broadband Network (NBN) would represent a triumph of social inclusion. Future-proofed high speed internet access would be available inside the homes of nearly all Australians living in built-up locations irrespective of their income or social status.

The week's good news was that the Federal Coalition has decided to back down from its previously announced plan to trash the NBN if it wins the 14 September election. It now intends to retain the NBN, but using a model that discriminates against the poor.

A Coalition government would deliver high speed internet access to street cabinets (pictured) located up to a kilometre from users' homes and business premises. The need to retain Telstra's old copper wires to complete the link would reduce speeds by a factor of around three quarters.

It would remove for most Australians the option to take advantage of broadband applications such as home medical examinations for the elderly and infirm.

But super-fast access would not be lost for those who can afford the internet equivalent of a business class flight. In many locations, it will be possible for users to pay between $3000 and $5000 to secure a high-speed fibre connection from the street cabinet to their premises. The majority would still need to endure the slow speeds of the Telstra copper wire cabinet to the premises connection.

This would effectively exclude them from the health, education and other benefits of the digital economy. 

It is significant, and pleasing, that the Coalition has now acknowledged that some version of the NBN is necessary for Australia's future development. We may still lack the city metro or high speed intercity rail connections our peers in the developed world take for granted, due to the lack of vision of previous governments. But at least those of us who can pay will benefit from the new economy.

Those who cannot will make up the large new underclass of the digitally disadvantaged.

Opposition Communications Spokesperson Malcolm Turnbull frequently cites Britain's inequitable fibre to the cabinet (FTTN) as a model for Australia. It is a revealing coincidence that the Coalition made its NBN announcement during the week of the death of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who championed user pays as part of her often quoted principle that there is 'no such thing as society'. 

Gina's subpoena threatens press freedom

During the past week we've seen media power brokers assert their view that the Federal Government's proposed media reforms represent a massive attack on freedom of the press. Arguably these assertions are spurious and reflect fears that the changes would threaten the power of the press and other media. 

Freedom of the press is about freedom to report, not to dominate. It is a value that is cherished by serious advocates of democracy and denied by totalitarian regimes. It is a complex principle that contains a range of imperatives, some of which are contained in the Media Alliance Code of Ethics. These include upholding the confidentiality of journalistic sources where confidence is requested. 

During the week, in which the press freedom debate has raged, this core principle of reporting has been challenged by one of Australia's up and coming media barons. 

Mining magnate Gina Rinehart is pursuing legal action that has led to the issue of a subpoena to Fairfax journalist Adele Ferguson, author of the unauthorised biography, Gina Rinehart — The Untold Story of the Richest Woman in the World. 

It demands she hand over emails, text messages, notebooks and any recordings of interviews made between Rinehart's eldest son John Hancock and the journalist since September 2011. Ferguson has until the end of this month to comply or be charged with contempt of court. A conviction could carry a jail term. She told the ABC she'd go to jail rather than violate the confidentiality principle.

There are appeals pending over other attempts to force journalists to reveal sources in various cases, including one involving Rinehart from a year ago. But the coincidence of last week's subpoena with the debate on press freedom highlights the hollow nature of the rhetoric of the media power brokers and indeed most politicians.

There has been scant coverage of Ferguson's plight in some of the major media outlets. Free speech defender Andrew Bolt, who is Rinehart's media commentator protege, was slow off the mark with a token reference. Meanwhile politicians from both the Government and Opposition have been silent with the notable exception of Malcolm Turnbull, who tweeted in Ferguson's defence. It appears other MPs are driven not by principle but fear of the media power brokers including Rinehart.

It's left to concerned citizens to fight for this important principle, which they are doing through a petition atchange.org.

Fear is the enemy of democracy

It's possible that future generations will judge the Bush administration's post 9/11 'War on Terror' as one of the most shameful and dangerous moments in American history. Crucial to this campaign were the 'enhanced interrogation' techniques that induced fear in order to bend the wills of those held captive. It was believed the end justified the means, and that the person's dignity, self esteem and grasp of their own reality were expendable.

We can look upon such forms of psychological torture as merely extreme manifestations of the damaging incidences of negative persuasion that are disarmingly commonplace in our society. There are still teachers and parents who prefer the pedagogy of the stick to that of the carrot. Also, political strategists are making increasing use of fear in order to persuade electors to vote for their party's candidates.

The most dramatic example of such manipulation in recent political history was the anti-Work Choices campaign that is credited with winning the 2007 Federal Election for Labor. It is widely believed that voters were paralysed by fear of losing their rights at work and their livelihood, and consequently voted the Coalition out of government because of the Work Choices legislation it had passed. 

This in turn spooked the Coalition, which is now afraid to countenance workplace reform, even though it is one of its core philosophical beliefs. Last week it shelved changes to the Fair Work legislation until the second term it hopes to win in 2016. This suggests that once fear becomes the currency, individuals and groups will abandon their values and hitherto perceptions of reality in a desperate attempt to avoid the imagined catastrophe.

For its part, Labor was thoroughly disarmed by the susceptibility of the population to the myths surrounding the Coalition's ongoing 'Stop the boats' rhetoric. It subsequently wound back the reforms to asylum seeker policy that it introduced during its first term of office.

Labor adopted the Coalition's terminology, embracing the delusion that 'breaking the people smugglers' business model' was the only way it could deal with our share of the worldwide challenge of refugee flows. 

Opposition Immigration spokesperson Scott Morrison showed last week that a population paralysed by fear of dangerous and illegal boat people ending up in its community could easily accept a premise that was blatantly untrue, and act and vote accordingly. After Morrison called for a suspension of asylum seekers being released into the community on the basis of a single violent incident.

Fairfax Media pointed out that these people are about 45 times less likely to be charged with a crime than members of the public.

The fact that the manipulative and misleading rhetoric of a fear mongering politician appears to have more influence and credibility than a set of statistics available on the Bureau of Statistics website and reported by a major newspaper group, is a worrying sign for democracy. The press may be free, but it is impotent in a climate of induced fear in which our democratic freedoms are an illusion.

Sports fans' idolatry makes monsters of heroes

The lives of many ordinary people are focused on sporting heroes, who act as their proxies. Although they do not know their idol personally, their devotion enables them to feel in some sense that they have themselves reached the hero's extremes of physical and mental endeavour. 

At its best, this delusion can have a positive social effect, in that it can make sports fans feel good about themselves, and infect their families and those around them with a positive outlook.

But essentially, many fantastic sporting achievements are just that. They are fantastic in the sense that what the hero has done is indeed great, but not well grounded in the reality of the give and take of human relationships and day to day activity in their lives.

The regrettable truth is that highly successful athletes are often deeply flawed human beings. Their success is frequently accompanied by a range of narcissistic and selfish behaviours that exploit and damage other people who are close to them in their personal and professional lives.

This appears to be the case with Oscar Pistorius, as it was with other sporting greats including Lance Armstrong, Tiger Woods and Shane Warne. Australia's badly behaved swimmers from the 2012 London Olympics could well join them in the future.

With regard to Armstrong, it's possible to argue that his bullying, intimidation and misrepresentation of those around him — which was designed to protect his clean image — was a greater wrong than his use of the performance-enhancing drugs.

The paradox is that the activities of successful athletes off the sporting field often include establishing or helping charities, which are dedicated to helping those who are less fortunate. But, whether intentional or not, these activities can work to conceal the truth about the athlete's flawed record in their treatment of fellow human beings, and they also reinforce the damaging myth of his or her super-human greatness.

In seeking to curb the excessive behaviour of sporting heroes, we can call for greater regulation and surveillance. But we can also examine our own behaviour.

We should not discount the role the blindness of our own idolatry can have in fuelling the arrogance and inflated sense of self worth of these people. It's one thing to praise them for the mental rigour that facilitates their single-minded pursuit of particular goals on the sporting field, but another for us to continue to support them when it's clear that they have brought this single-mindedness to their abuse of people off the sporting field.

Radical Benedict

Pope Benedict's resignation shocked the Church and the world. A papal resignation has not occurred in almost 600 years. Benedict did something that was considered 'not done'. It was not against the rules, but it has changed the institution of the Church. 

It makes him look like a radical in the tradition of Christian radicalism. Biblical commentators note that the term radical 'is derived from the Latin word radixmeaning 'root', referring to the need for perpetual re-orientation towards the root truths of Christian discipleship', and that 'one way Christians achieve this is to revisit the Sermon on the Mount or the Gospel of Mark, the earliest of the canonical gospels'. 

Such re-orientation is informed by conscience. Accordingly, Benedict wrote in his statement last week: 'After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry ... In order to govern the barque of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary.'

The logic of what Benedict did implies that his successor could choose to overlook practices that are arguably no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the ministry of Jesus Christ in general, such as priestly celibacy. 

It is true that relaxing the celibacy requirement would involve revising laws in addition to overturning modern tradition. But Benedict has established the principle of the Pope 'examin[ing his] conscience before God', in order to promote the primacy of the exercise of the ministry for which the Church was founded. Accordingly, laws that fail to uphold primary principles can and should be changed.

The upshot of Benedict's resignation is that the Church has grounds for hope that did not exist a week ago. As the blogger Andrew Sullivan put it:

Those of us who have hung in must now pray for a new direction, a return to the spirit of the Second Council, a Pope of reform after an era of often irrational reaction and concealment of some of the worst evil imaginable. It can happen. Perhaps Benedict XVI finally grasped that. And finally did what he was never ever capable of doing before: let go and let God take over.

Moreover it would do no harm for the reverberations of Benedict's radical and conscientious action to be felt beyond the Church, inside institutions such as political parties and unions, where more attention is often given to particular rules and conventions than the purposes for which they were founded.

Philanthropy should be a condition of tax relief

Prime Minister Julia Gillard ruled it out last week, but there's no denying that the Federal Government would like to reduce tax concessions for the wealthy when they access their superannuation. Last year the concessions cost $30 billion in forgone revenue, and Treasuryestimates the figure will increase to $45 billion by 2015–16.

The concessions are designed to encourage more Australians to fund their own retirement, and not burden the public purse by taking the age pension. But in reality, it would be much more cost effective to remove the means test from the age pension and have the rich receive the same $712 per fortnight as the poor. 

Australia Institute research fellow David Richardson saysthat in his last six budgets, former treasurer Peter Costello took the cost of super tax concessions from 1.3 per cent of GDP to 3.3 per cent. Meanwhile, the cost of the age pension was at just over 2 per cent of GDP. In 2009, the Australia Institute produced a report titledThe great superannuation tax concession rort, which showed how the concessions redistribute scarce resources away from low-income earners towards the secure and privileged well-off. 

The scarce resources are required to fund important but expensive projects such as the National Disability Insurance Scheme, which will improve the lives of countless needy Australians. By contrast, the concessions secure the sometimes obscene lifestyles of wealthy Australians, who believe they are entitled to tax relief.

Business Council of Australia president Tony Shepherd told a round table meeting last Thursday: 'Philosophically, I object to the term 'concessions' ... We go to work, we get paid. The money is ours.'

Shepherd speaks on behalf of a section of the population whose members have often worked hard to get where they are. They feel it is unfair that they are expected to share their reward with those who may not have worked as hard, or been as lucky in the lottery of life.

Such an attitude belongs more to the USA, the land of the self-made man, and not to the Commonwealth of Australia, where we have always been more mindful of the common good. 

But it has to be noted that respectable self-made men in the US give generously to their favourite charities and foundations. In Australia, respectable citizens pay their taxes, and welfare and other public needs tend to be government funded. Philanthropy has never taken root. This was confirmed in an Australian Council for Educational Research survey reported in the media today.

The case for tax concessions for wealthy Australians would be more convincing if there was evidence of large-scale philanthropy here. If philanthropists funded welfare and other public service organisations, governments would not need to raise taxes for this purpose. If wealthy Australians would like tax relief, they should think about emulating the self-made men of the USA.

Tax justice for unpaid carers

r community with disability, chronic illness or frailty due to old age. There is no 'tax justice' for these families, according to the Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick.

'The failure of our superannuation and taxation systems, alone, to recognise this contribution and provide a value for this unpaid work means that carers — mostly women — who have had long and repeated absences from paid employment, find they have negligible retirement savings and indeed, often retire in poverty.'

Unpaid carers include both parents and guardians of children as well as those who care for a family member or friend with disability, chronic illness or frailty due to older age. The first group are better provided for, although grandparents who spend many hours providing free childcare may beg to differ. It is the carers of those with lifelong chronic conditions who find themselves working as virtual slaves.

As the report points out, they lack the ability to provide for their own old age, when they may not be fortunate enough to have a family member to care for them. In addition, their activity does not fulfil the Catholic 'moral obligation to link industriousness as a virtue with the social order of work, which will enable man to become, in work, "more a human being" and not be degraded by it'.

The report's recommendations include legislation to assist unpaid carers with mechanisms like carer assessments to determine their support needs, and carer cards securing access to services and entitlements which would allow them to participate in society on a more equal footing. There is also a call for reform to the current system of retirement income and savings, including the age pension and superannuation that is currently tied to paid work.

It is disingenuous to talk about 'tax justice for families', or to be providing a school kids bonus that does not require accountability, without also seeking to provide for those whose support needs fall outside established assistance mechanisms. It's time that voters showed signs that they are prepared to reward genuine leaders more than those whose handouts are politically calculated.

Not judging Ned Kelly and Lance Armstrong

At lunchtime on Friday, Ned Kelly’s Requiem Mass was finally celebrated in St Patrick’s Church, Wangaratta, in north-eastern Victoria. The bushranger was sentenced to death by hanging in 1880 and denied the religious rites he requested. His bones were recently rediscovered and identified, and his family has been able to organise a belated funeral and reburial.

On Friday, commentators and bloggers took the opportunity to pass judgment on Kelly. One called him a ‘psychotic and dangerous’ criminal ‘with a pathological hatred of the police’. Another deplored the ‘dishonest folklore and revisionism’ that has made him a hero for many Australians.

But they missed the point, as did members of the public who directed abusive phone calls and emails to Monsignor John White, who presided at the Requiem Mass on Friday.

White explained: ‘The life that Ned lived is not the point today... We have a church of saints and sinners and we are not here to say which category Ned fell into.’

Coinciding with Ned Kelly’s Requiem Mass on Friday was quite a different ritual, the broadcast of Oprah Winfrey’s interview with cyclist and now self-confessed drug cheat Lance Armstrong. The interview was seen by many as a calculated bid on the part of Armstrong to harness the positive power of Winfrey’s brand to induce public judgment that he is morally fit to resume his sporting career.

But like the Ned Kelly requiem, judgment should not be the point here either, however self-serving Armstrong's own agenda may have been in doing the interview with Winfrey. It doesn't serve any useful purpose to dwell on whether we think Armstrong should be condemned or excused. If we're interested in the common good, we will instead be discussing how drug policy can be changed to ensure there is a level playing field for cycling and sport in general.

As ethicist Julian Savulescu put it in the Fairfax press on Saturday: ‘Rather than excoriating Armstrong, wouldn't it be better to ask why everyone is cheating, and why the rules are failing?’ Savulescu does not share the Catholic religious world view of Monsignor White, but they are both urging us to look at the big picture. 

Ned Kelly killed three policemen, and that was a serious crime. But a reading of his Jerilderie Letter manifesto suggests his actions were a symptom of a system of British colonial rule that was stacked against Irish Catholics. In the same way, Armstrong’s behaviour is a product of what Savulescu calls an ‘ideology’ of zero-tolerance against performance enhancing drugs in sport, which he argues should be examined. Armstrong’s deplorable treatment of informers such as his former aide Emma O’Reilly is comparable with the way Kelly dealt with those who informed on him. 

There are arguments to both condemn both Kelly and Armstrong as psychotic criminals, but also to recognise their achievement as trailblazing reformers, though Armstrong is still a work in progress. However judgment of whether they are right or wrong is best left to their own soul-searching, when they face their God or ultimate reality. As the agnostic Armstrong has said: ‘If there was indeed some body or presence standing there to judge me, I hope I would be judged on whether I had lived a true life’.

A true life or a deceitful life might be inspiring, or discouraging, for us to think about, depending upon how we view the behaviour of the individual concerned. But it is not something we can know unless we are Ned Kelly's God or Lance Armstrong's body or presence. The business of the rest of us is to consider how best to reform the rules by which we live our lives, and play our games, in a civil society.

Coal mining, civil disobedience and the public good

Commentators were outraged by activist Jonathan Moylan's fake media release that caused disruption to the stock market last week. But there was little concern about the the impact of coal mining on people's health and the climate, the issue that prompted what was called his act of civil disobedience. 

Decades ago, industry and government were slow to listen to the message of activists about the dangers of asbestos, and we are now paying the price. The effect of coal mining on the health of local communities is probably far less significant, but nevertheless overseas evidence suggests it could be serious and far-reaching. 

The Beyond Zero Emissions 2012 study Health and Social Harms of Coal Mining in Local Communities points to evidence of elevated mortality rates in Appalachian coal mining areas in the US. The authors stress the need to research the health effects of coal mining in the Hunter Valley and other regions. But instead governments appear to be granting mining licences indiscriminately and offering favourable treatment to the coal industry.

The study cites offshore evidence of excess deaths from lung cancer and chronic heart, respiratory and kidney disease related to living near coal mines. Its authors detail major expansion that is underway or planned in our coal mining industry, but point out that there is a 'glaring absence of local evidence to determine what impacts these projects will have on the health of surrounding communities'.

It seems governments do not want to know about the long-term health impacts of coal mining. Coal mining's short-term economic benefit is more attractive politically, and there is also strong lobbying from industry groups and others. Rod Campbell of the public interest advocacy group Economists at Largesuggests government actions go beyond cavalier and are more underhand. i

The Maules Creek community on whose behalf Moylan was acting approached Campbell's group to help make sense of the 2000 page environmental impact statement that was delivered just days before Christmas with only weeks to respond. He writes: 'Our assessment of the review is scathing. Gillespie Economics has overlooked the foreign ownership of the project and presented profits to overseas interests as benefits to the NSW community.' 

Moylan did the wrong thing in undermining public confidence in the share trading system, which in turn underpins the stability of our economy. His actions were fraudulent and supporting them would amount to affirming anarchy and rejecting the rule of law, even if governments and the coal industry don't appear to be acting with integrity and in the public interest.

He was, as he told the ABC, only making 'the announcement that ANZ should have made, that it wasn't going to be investing unethically' in Whitehaven's Maules Creek Coal Project. 

The media and the vulnerable in 2012

oking at our archive, I discovered this was a constant throughout the year.

Still current is the fallout of actions of 2DAY FM employees who appeared to have prompted the death of nurse Jacintha Saldanha, who was vulnerable to suicide. Also recent is the criticism that, while the media were empowering church sexual abuse victims by telling their stories, the victims and their stories were providing fodder for one of the year's biggest media events, so that media outlets were in effect capitalising on lives broken by the church. Earlier the BBC was exposed for suppressing coverage of the exploitative behaviour of one of its own, Jimmy Savile.

Back in January, we were reflecting on the film The Iron Lady,and Meryl Streep's determination not to make a plaything of Margaret Thatcher. Instead she would continue her own lifelong effort as an actor to 'defend the humanity of people that we've made into emblematic figures of one sort or another'. 

Also in January, we used Pope Benedict XVI's idea of a communications 'eco-system' to mute the shrill 'Stop the boats!' political rhetoric in order to allow space for a hearing of the hope and fears of both asylum seekers and the Australian people. The Pope had urged a balance between silence, words, images and sounds, which is more likely to give voice to the poor than cacophonic social and mass media. 

Another comment observed that the iconoclastic tone of much TV comedy 'lacks the values and moral centre needed to counter xenophobia' exists in the community. The same could be said for violent video games, but there was also the view that they are easily demonised when proper funding for mental health services is also needed. Another form of media was threatening to exploit vulnerable people — online gaming and betting apps.

In March, and again in November, Sydney University's St John's College was in the news, and the media made a meal of accounts of students having to submit to humiliating rituals to gain the acceptance of student elders. 

In May we used the term 'Big Media' to suggest that large media corporations are just like 'Big Tobacco' in their relentless exploitation of captive small people for the end of shareholder profit, but that the National Broadband Network might provide diversity if the government followed recommendations from its Convergence Review rather than the wishes of the large media owners, as successive governments have for many years.

Some things never change, but we live in hope that they will, and that we will all live in a better world as a result. That is our hope for 2013.