Prague, 17 November 1989


Where’s homophobia when you need it? I bought this satirical take on communist comradeship going much too far (original photo here) at Prague’s small but very interesting Museum of Communism when I was there in August.

While there you can watch a video of the student demonstration that 20 years ago today was the beginning of the end of communist rule in Czechoslavakia. I’d forgotten about this event; the amazing scenes in Wenceslas Square a couple of days later with a huge crowd chanting ‘Dubcek! Dubcek!’ as Alexander Dubcek, leader of the crushed 1968 attempt to reform Czech communism, and future president Vaclav Havel appeared before them, had wiped lesser memories.

The video was a reminder that the fall of communism was not entirely peaceful, with police – uniformed and plain clothes – brutally attacking the demonstrators. While no students were killed, many were injured. But the time for accepting this kind of treatment was over, and the ‘Velvet Revolution’ began.

A manipulated Green climate change poll

According to a Galaxy Poll released by the Greens today, the Australian public wants a more ambitious ETS than the one proposed by the government. It asked

The government has proposed a minimum emissions reduction target of 5% by the year 2020. Scientists and environmentalists have suggested a more ambitious target if we are to properly address the issue of climate change. In your personal view, should the aim of the legislation be a minimum reduction of 5% as suggested by the government, or a reduction of at least 25% as argued by scientists and environmentalists?

35% of respondents wanted the 5% target, 54% wanted the 25% target, and 12% gave neither or don’t know responses.

This is a classic case of the party financing the poll getting the result it wants, constructing a question and possible answers around the known contours of public opinion to get a fundamentally misleading result. Continue reading “A manipulated Green climate change poll”

Canberra’s gay-only civil union ceremonies

The civil unions stoush between the ACT and federal governments is on again.

One of the issues has been the ceremony, which the federal government says makes ACT civil unions too like a marriage. According to The Age

This time, the territory assembly amended its laws on the advice of two leading Queen’s Counsels – including the now federal Solicitor-General Stephen Gageler – to answer criticism that the scheme would mirror marriage.

The advice suggests that if civil ceremonies were only open to gay couples, and not heterosexuals, it would be clearer that it did not contravene the federal Marriage Act, which by definition only regulates relationships between a man and a woman.

ACT Attorney-General Simon Corbell said that by making such a change, the territory had removed any federal justification for trying to quash the laws.

So the way to get around a law discriminating against gay people is to pass a law discriminating against straight people. The better solution is to change federal law, but the ACT’s law seems better than the status quo. Continue reading “Canberra’s gay-only civil union ceremonies”

Migration attitudes surprisingly stable

There hasn’t been much comment on yesterday’s Nielsen poll on migration. It doesn’t give comparative reuslts, but by doing so we can see that the proportion of Australians thinking that that immigration is too high is stable compared to 2007. On slightly different questions Nielsen finds 43% of respondents saying that the immigration level is too high, compared to 46% of respondents to the Australian Election Survey in 2007 saying that migrant numbers should be reduced.

This is a little surprising. As shown in a chapter on public opinion in a new book, Australia’s Immigration Revolution, historically unemployment and negative migration opinion trend together. While Australia’s economic downturn has been very mild by global standards, I would have expected rising unemployment and lower subjective job security (the number of people worried about losing their jobs always vastly exceeds the number who actually do) to have reduced support for migration.

I thought in 2008 that the trend against migration observed in 2007 might be due to housing issues. While housing inflation did cool a little during the GFC, I’ve heard several recent media mentions of the effect high migration is having on housing availability and cost, and thought this might start to bite in public opinion. But there is no evidence of it in these figures.

Hello Lenin?

The film Good Bye Lenin is a sweet tale of a son determined to protect his fragile socialist mother from the news that, as we are celebrating today, the GDR is no more. The emotional core of the film is the mother-son relationship, but we are led to a little sympathy for the mother who never lost her belief in a delusional socialist idea.

But what are we to make of people who late in life start making excuses for the dismally failed socialist experiment in central and eastern Europe?

In a bizarre letter published in Australian Book Review last May, Norman Abjorensen, once a Liberal staffer, blamed the collapse of the socialist experiment not on its dysfunctional economic system and cruel treatment of its captive peoples, but on a propaganda campaign and ‘permanent war footing’ by the ‘capitalist ruling class’ determined to ‘discredit and rid itself of a potential alternative’.

How anyone can talk about the ‘promising post-Stalin era’, as Abjorensen does, is beyond me. I very much doubt the Hungarians in 1956 or the Czechs in 1968 thought a brutal Soviet crushing of their attempts at creating a better society was ‘promising’. True, the end of mass extermination by the Soviet Union of its own citizens was an improvement, but the post-Stalin regimes were not ‘promising’ by any normal standard.

Anyone hoping that ABR readers would object to this nonsense would have been disappointed. Continue reading “Hello Lenin?”

My glimpse of life under communism

I was among the last generation of people whose politics were shaped by World War II and its aftermath, the long struggle between the USSR and its allies and the USA and its allies. Unsurprisingly given my youthful Friedmanite views, I was a strong anti-communist.

While I was on my student backpacking trip around Europe in late 1985 and early 1986 I decided that I had to see Berlin, the place that more than anywhere in Europe had cold war tensions built into – physically, politically, and emotionally – its daily life. So my apolitical travelling companion and I split for a few days; he went skiing and I went to check out communism first hand.

My first impression, from the East German border police, was surprisingly favourable. They boarded the train to check our travel documents, and (as I recorded in a letter back to my family in Melbourne) offered a greeting at the start and a grin at the end. By the standards of passport checkers around the world, they provided an above-average experience.

Technologically I was less impressed. While I was still on the same train, the ride became much worse due to the ‘rotten track’ (as I called it). I was bouncing from side to side. The Mercedes and BMWs I’d seen on West German roads were replaced with Trabants. But I enjoyed the countryside and eventually we made it to West Berlin. Continue reading “My glimpse of life under communism”

Should adultery be rewarded?

The Herald-Sun leads this morning with the story of an ex-mistress who, thanks to new laws legally re-defining relationships, received a $100,000 pay-out from her lover when they broke up after 20 years. The case was settled out of court after the woman’s lawyers pointed out that ‘the laws give some mistresses, as well as de facto and same-sex couples, the same rights as married couples.’

As I argued when this reform was being considered, I think the state should faciltate relationships people want to have, but not impose rules on the parties unless there are strong public policy reasons for doing so. The most important to these is to provide for the continuing care and support for children. Partners (usually women, of course) who have looked after kids should get pay-outs after relationship breakdown to encourage active parenting.

But rewarding a childless mistress seems to me to be in an entirely different category. This encourages adultery and gold-diggers, at significant emotional and financial risk to the first family. While prohibiting this kind of behaviour is pointless, it should not be encouraged by lessening the risks/increasing the rewards to those threatening existing relationships. How relationship failure between married and not-married people is dealt with should be up to the parties involved, without any legal intervention.

Should students be able to claim YA eligibility expenses?

As reported this morning, the full court of the Federal Court has rejected the ATO’s appeal against the decision we discussed in April to allow as tax deductions expenses that help make students eligible for Youth Allowance.

The respondent in this case, Symone Anstis, had claimed expenses for among other things her textbooks, depreciation on her computer, and supplies for children on her teaching rounds.

As Youth Allowance eligibility broadens over time this is likely to be an increasingly expensive decision. I don’t expect many continuing YA-dependent students will have paid any income tax they haven’t already claimed back via the low-income tax offset system (which has become more generous since Anstis made her claim).

However there will be many who receive YA for half a financial year as they complete their course, but then earn enough as full-time workers in the second half of the financial year to to have a tax liability for the whole financial year.

What in practice this decision will do is give a small financial advantage to ex-YA recipients compared to other graduates who relied entirely on their own earnings in their final semester. Particularly given the legacy of widespread rorting of the YA ‘independence’ test, this group should not receive another handout. There is a still a YA reform bill stalled in the Parliament. It should be amended to abolish these deductions.

Does the public support ‘legitimate’ refugees coming to Australia?

Pollytics blog reports on some interesting Essential Research polling on refugees. It does a bit more to fill the big gaps in our public opinion knowledge of refugees: there have been many questions about boat arrivals but very few about what the public thinks of the broader refugee program.

From this perspective, the most important proposition put by Essential Research was:

The federal government should be allowing legitimate refugees to enter the country and contribute to our nation.

A plurality (45%) agreed, and a minority (25%) disagreed. A surprisingly high 30% of respondents did not have a view.

Though only 25% oppose refugees generally, 66% agree with turning the boats back. Possible reasons are the prospect of terrorists being on the boats (56% agree) and doubts about whether the refugees currently coming to Australia are genuine refugees (37% think they might not be, though the question was confused with the added concept of processing them immediately).

What we need now are questions about the concept of a ‘queue’ and whether there are particular types of refugees the public does or does not want.

10 November update: A useful summary of polls from Pollytics blog.

Warped HELP priorities

Buried in the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook was a change to the FEE-HELP loan system. From July 2010, the ‘administration charge’ (more accurately, debt surcharge) for fee-paying undergraduate students will increase from 20% to 25%. So for example a student borrowing to finance a $10,000 fee would incur a debt of $12,500 rather $12,000.

While I don’t object to the HELP scheme being put on a sounder financial basis – lending money at zero real interest is an expensive business – targeting just this group is highly anomalous.

Since full-fee undergraduate places are being phased out of public universities, this change hits students at TAFEs and private providers. The TAFEs and private ‘feeder colleges’, institutions offering diploma programmes that articulate into bachelor courses, are exactly the kinds of higher education providers a government wanting to improve access to higher education should be encouraging. They give second chances to people who didn’t get the Year 12 scores they needed, or mature age students returning to study after a long absence.

On this year’s estimated FEE-HELP lending to students at TAFEs and feeder colleges, this change will cost them about $1.5 million a year. Continue reading “Warped HELP priorities”