Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Nothing to fear from increased migration

By Graham Cooke

Bob Birrell is at it again. One of the great scaremongers on Australia's immigration policies has the audacity to accuse others of scaring the baby boomer generation into supporting migrant intakes in order to ensure there are sufficient workers to look after them in their old age.

He goes on in an article in Policy magazine to insult aged care workers by implying migrants brought in to fill positions in this occupation would be "second class" doing "dirty work".

Birrell lays a series of horrors at the door of continued migration and population increase: The environment swamped, ghettos created, cities unlivable, sporting culture destroyed, the English language diluted.

All of this because of a projected rise in Australia's population from the current 22 million to a projection, supported by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, of 35 million by 2050.

What is so catastrophic about an increase of 13 million over 40 years? Australia had just seven million inhabitants in the immediate post war period, and I would suggest the country is now a better place following a more than tripling of the population over 60 years.

The United States does not have that much greater land mass than Australia, but manages comfortably with 300 million; even India, with more than a billion people manages to preserve some wilderness areas.

Birrell expresses great concern over Australia's carbon footprint. The solution to climate change - if indeed one can be found - has to be a global one. If the migrants are not in Australia contributing to greenhouse gases, they will be pumping it out elsewhere. There may actually be a better chance of them cutting back on their personal emissions in Australia, where technology and strict controls are going to significantly reduce our greenhouse output in the years to come.

Birrell presents a picture of high-density, inner city living as a kind of enforced hell, while ignoring the fact that increasing numbers of Australians are deliberately choosing that lifestyle. A recent survey of the Brisbane CBD found both young professionals and the over 50s were moving there in significant numbers, the latter forsaking long-established homes in the suburbs. The days of the white picket fence surrounding the quarter acre block are in decline and maybe that is not a bad thing.

As for sport, Birrell should take a look at the 'foreign' names gracing team lists in the AFL, rugby codes, netball, tennis, cricket and a score of others. Migrants have adopted the Australian love of sport which, in any case, is not really the preserve of Australia. I know of few countries that would deny they have a passionate sporting culture. Sport is one of the great unifying influences in the world today.

Language is a problem for new migrants, not for the nation as a whole. There are certainly some older people from non-English-speaking backgrounds who struggle, but their children almost always adapt very quickly. The few thousand migrants who have difficulty coming to terms with a new language are a problem, but a manageable one.

Australia has always been a nation of migrants. It is our destiny and we have done remarkably well from it. Populations are more mobile today than they have ever been in human history and to deny this, or to try and reverse this trend, is Canute-like naivety.

Migration has and will continue to change Australian culture, along with technology, political initiatives and social attitudes, because culture is not something to be frozen in time and stored in a museum. History can teach us that. An Australian of the 1930s would be shocked at the differences to be found in the nation of the 21st century, just as a mid-Victorian inhabitant of the colony of NSW would find it difficult to come to terms with 1930s Australia.

Perhaps Birrell would not agree, but I believe most Australians are prepared to admit that Australia is a better place today than it was 70 years ago. There is no reason to believe it can't be an even better place in the future - even if there are 35 million people to share it.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Let Shakespeare rest in peace

By Graham Cooke

Two more books about William Shakespeare have been published in the last few weeks, adding to an ever-growing collection that seeks to discover the secrets of the man behind the plays.

I am delighted that James Shapiro in Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare explodes some of the downright stupid myths and conspiracy theories surrounding Will, while in The Final Act of Mr Shakespeare, Robert Winder produces a part-documentary, part novel of the last part of Shakespeare's writing career.

In a delightful bit of fantasy, he suggests that Will regrets his character assassination of Richard III and decides to write a play about Henry VII revealing the Tudors for the greedy usurpers they really were, only for the authorities to get wind of it, forcing him to can the project.

That's the great thing about Shakespeare - we have his words but know so little about his life. so we make inventions and assumptions. Writers have made their careers out of trying to prove that Shakespeare did not write a single line - it was Bacon, it was Marlowe, or some obscure aristocrat who couldn't publish under his own name because writing plays was not what gentlemen did. Four centuries after his death Shakespeare keeps his literary descendants in work. He should be pleased.

Did Shakespeare really write Hamlet, King Lear, Measure for Measure and so on? Probably, but does it matter? Did he have help? Almost certainly, so what? It detracts not a jot from the magnificence of the words he used; of his ability to have audiences splitting their sides at Falstaff or looking on in horror at the blinding of Gloucester.

I think that sometimes we are guilty at looking at Shakespeare through modern eyes, forgetting he was a child of the late Elizabethan era. We are used to the idea of compartmentalised theatre - the playwright writes, the producer produces, the director directs and the actors perform.

Things were very different in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. There were acting companies where everyone mucked in. Shakespeare was first and foremost an actor; an actor with a bit of a talent for writing admittedly who was an an asset because audiences of the day wanted a regular diet of new material. So Will got time to write, but sometimes the deadlines got on top of him, which meant others in the company and perhaps friends and associates like Marlowe helped out.

What could be more natural - and does anyone have a better explanation?

Of all the books and newspaper articles I have read about Shakespeare, nothing was more entertaining than a novel by alternative history master Harry Turtledove, who wrote of Shakespeare in an England where the Armada had succeeded and England is occupied. In his account, Shakespeare is caught up in a successful revolution against the Spanish and is rewarded with a knighthood.

Fanciful nonsense? No more, I would suggest, than the vast quantities of suppositions and inventions which have been produced under the guise of scholarly investigation over the past 50 years.

Let Shakespeare rest - the words he wrote (or may have written) will live forever.

Monday, March 22, 2010

History will judge Obama's health reforms

By Graham Cooke

When United States President Barack Obama signs his landmark Health Reform Bill into law he may pause to ponder the words of one of his predecessors, Lyndon Johnson, at a similar turning point in American history.

As Johnson put his signature to the Civil Rights Bill on July 2, 1964 - legislation initiated by the assassinated John F. Kennedy but which he single-handedly bullied through a dubious Senate, he is reported to have remarked to an aide "this will lose us the South for a generation".

He was overly-optimistic. Although he won a landslide election victory later that year, before the enormity of the changes had sunk in, Johnson's Democrat Party produced only one president in the next 24 years, and it was only with Obama's election in 2008 that there were serious signs voting patterns in the states of the former Confederacy had begun to shift.

But the Civil Rights Act, and the later Voting Rights Act, ending discrimination which for almost a century had prevented most southern blacks from voting, remained on the statute books and over the course of time changed America, and changed it immeasurably for the better. Johnson, whose name is still associated with, and to a great extent besmirched by, the Vietnam War, will nevertheless eventually be remembered as one of the great reforming presidents.

There is every indication Obama may be heading down the same track. He has the tail-end of an unpopular involvement in Iraq and the seemingly endless war in Afghanistan to deal with, while his health care reforms have been labelled as 'socialist' by some opponents. It is an accusation considered laughable in Australia and most other Western developed countries, but which has powerful resonance in the United States.

Unfortunately for Obama and the Democrats, the 30 or more million Americans who will benefit the most from these reforms also tend to be non-voters, while those who face a rise in taxes to pay for them, will certainly be casting their ballots in the November mid-term elections and again in 2012.

The legislation still has some hurdles to surmount as the grimly opposed Republicans take their arguments probably all the way to the Supreme Court, where its constitutionality will be challenged.

However, it is now probably inevitable that a century after a Republican president, Teddy Roosevelt, first advocated it, the United States will finally have a universal health care system in place.

Health will always be a contentious issue. Conservatives in Australia will continue to rail against the perceived inefficiencies and fiscal waste of Medicare and seek subtle ways of watering it down when they have the chance, but they would not dare abolish it; Britons complain incessantly about the National Health Service, but no one seriously suggests it should be dispensed with.

As time passes the same will happen in the United States. A service as fundamental as universal health care, once offered, can never be withdrawn.

I certainly do not wish to see it, but there is a very real chance the Democrats are going to face another long period in the wilderness and Barack Obama will be a one-term president as a direct result of health care reform.

If this is so, I believe that history will eventually judge the sacrifice to have been worthwhile.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Cyberspace no substitute for hard cash

By Graham Cooke

Australia's independent Senator, Nick Xenophon, is well known for his combative style. He hates poker machines and seeks to have them limited at every opportunity, and has pursued a relentless campaign against the Church of Scientology which he accuses of a range of abuses including coercing its members into having abortions.

These are issues which should certainly be explored further, but whether Xenophon is going about it the right way is open to question. However, there is one issue on which I will back him to the hilt.

In a recent Senate debate on financial legislation, Xenophon sought to introduce an amendment making it illegal for banks or any other organisation or institution to charge their customers a penalty fee for paying their accounts with cash.

Neither of the major parties were interested, reasons ranging through irrelevance to the legislation being debated to the precedent of telling organisations how they do business.

There was a general feeling the move away from cash transactions was inevitable. One senator pointed out the controversy that erupted when employers started insisting their workers should have bank accounts into which their wages and salaries could be paid, rather than receiving their remuneration in cash.

The senator said that as everyone accepted bank payments now, the same would be the case with penalties for cash payments.

This completely misses the point. No one should have to pay for the right to present the coin of the realm in order to settle an account for items or services purchased. To do so is a violation of conventions governing transactions that go back hundreds, even thousands of years.

The fact that legal tender has such a long history is the reason why there are no rules protecting its acceptance. Until now they have never been considered necessary.

Organisations have a vested interest in pushing their customers towards non-cash transactions. Payments made over the internet involve fewer staff, fewer processing steps and therefore higher profits. Front counters no longer have to manned, banknotes and coins do not have to be counted and reconciled at the end of each day.

Instead of difficult-to-manage banknotes and coins, dollars and cents become simply 'units of exchange' shifted around in cyberspace.

There may come a time when this is universally acceptable. Young people today conduct virtually all their financial transactions online and presumably will continue to do so throughout their lives.

But as of now there are still many people who grew to maturity in a world before the internet and still find it difficult to handle. A recent survey found that only one in five Australians over 65 was 'online'.

These people should not be punished for taking their bills into a shopfront and paying over the counter in the time-honoured way with notes and coins.

I hope that Senator Xenophon pursues this issue with the same zeal he has shown with poker machine operators and suspect religious institutions.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Keep the skilled migrants coming

By Graham Cooke

Bob Brown is one of the most energetic members of the Australian Parliament.

Whenever there is an issue, there's the Greens Senate Leader, whether its whaling, logging, political advertising, anti-corruption, or the possibility of eucalyptus pathogens in Tasmania's water supply, there you'll find Bob.

It's a wonder that the leader of the party supposedly most friendly to the environment doesn't pause occasionally to count the trees he is killing as newsrooms throughout the country print the media releases he churns out.

There are other members of the Greens Party in the Senate but they are practically invisible. Brown dominates proceedings, speaks in all the debates, asks all the questions. He seems to have an opinion on everything.

But on one issue at least, he is totally wrong.

Brown recently tried to move a motion calling on the Government to establish an independent national inquiry into Australia's population in 2050, claiming that this country cannot support the projected figure of 35 million people by the middle of the century.

Up to now this is good Greens territory, but he went further, saying that Australia should slash skilled migration and instead increase the number of humanitarian refugees.

He claims migrants with skills should put them at the service of their own countries rather than bringing them to Australia.

Then of course the populist sop: Invest more money in training Australians for the skilled vacancies.

Governments of both persuasions have been busting a gut trying to get Australians into training. When I was national media adviser to the Housing Industry Association every second media release I wrote was on the subject of encouraging Australians to get into trades. So far its success has been limited.

And it's not only on the construction sites and down the mines that Australians come up short - doctors, nurses, other health professionals also have yawning vacancies in their ranks. Prime Minister Rudd would not have a health system to reform if the legions of overseas workers had not been allowed to come here.

Australia needs skilled migration. If it were stifled our economy would falter, demand-push inflation would accelerate, and we would all be a great deal worse off than we are today.

By all means have a sensible, managed immigration system. By all means take in more refugees. The number coming to Australia, legally or by boat, is still tiny compared with those in Europe and the United States.

But to suggest would-be migrants should be denied because they have a skill that Australia actually needs is Alice in Wonderland politics.

Bob Brown should stop trying to take his party down the road to some kind of socialist utopia the socialists gave up on decades ago. Logging and whaling are far safer subjects for him.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

By Graham Cooke

Actress Noeline Brown was in Canberra recently promoting the message as Australia's official Ambassador for Ageing that healthy living means a longer, better life.

The Rudd Labor Government created the position and Ms Brown is an inspired choice. Now in her 72nd year, she leads a schedule that would leave women - and men - decades younger breathless, combining a rigorous program of engagements with her acting commitments, which are hardly less demanding now than when she was a regular on one of Australia's most popular television programs, the Mavis Bramston Show, in the 1960s.

Officially Ms Brown has a range of duties including the promotion of positive and active ageing, taking part in community activities that boost respect for older people, and encouraging older people to plan for the future. The main reason she is out there promoting these messages is, however, starkly obvious to anyone who looks at the country's demographic profile.

There are currently around three million Australians of Ms Brown's generation - 65 and older the age when most will be in retirement. Within 40 years that figure will swell to 7.2 million, a quarter of the nation's population.

Australians, in common with many other nationalities around the world, are living longer. When the aged pension was introduced at 65 for men and 60 for women, the average lifespan was still the Biblical three score years and ten. Today the average male Australian can expect to live to 79 and a female to 81. Instead of having to pay for five and 10 years, the Government is forking out for 15 and 20.

Add to that the fact that people who do live longer often have many and varied medical conditions which require expensive treatment, and often need specialist care in nursing homes, and it is understandable that the greying of the nation is seen in some quarters as a problem, verging on a crisis.

Any demographer or statistician could have foretold this situation 30 years ago, when the birthrate began to decline after the end of the post-war 'baby boom', but governments being governments hard decisions have been put off until the last moment.

Now with the Baby Boomers about to retire in large numbers, something has to be done.

The hard-working Ms Brown is, of course, not the answer. In many ways she is simply preparing older and not so old Australians for the hard decisions down the track - keep yourself fit because it might not be so easy to access medical care; keep yourself active, because you might have to continue to earn a living if pension funds dry up.

The retirement age has already been raised to 67 for workers now in their 40s, and will also be progressively raised for women to eventually reach parity. It's a racing certainly that there will be further increases, probably to 70, before many more years have passed.

This will probably not be unwelcome to some of the more active members of the population who look on two decades or more of playing golf, gardening and reading books, with some trepidation. However, provision will have to be made for those in physically demanding jobs who may simply be unable to continue to perform them in their later years.

I believe the question of older people working longer should be addressed with a little more carrot - tax incentives, part-time work, flexible hours etc - rather than the stick of an ever-increasing retirement age.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

A tale of two schools...

Mention 'Islamic School' in the Australian context and most people will think of the affair at Camden, on the outskirts of Sydney, a couple of years ago when the local council unanimously voted against the establishment of an Islamic school for 1200 students.

Councillors cited environmental concerns - and they probably had a point, it was a large school for a semi-rural location - but they were obviously relieved at finding an excuse in the face of fierce local opposition based very much on racism and xenophobia.

Whether or not the school is ever built at Camden or elsewhere is beside the point. Rather like the Cronulla riots of 2005, the Camden incident revealed an unpleasant aspect of the Australian psyche that lies not far below the veneer of laid-back tolerance and 'fair go'.

Most of the fear about these schools lies in the belief they are breeding grounds for militant fundamentalism and terrorism, halfway houses on the road to Al Qaeda training camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan. And of course the occasional oddball Imam who talks about Israelis secretly poisoning bananas in Muslim children's lunch boxes is always destined to grab a headline.

For every Camden, there are dozens of Islamic schools operating around Australia, all adhering to the policies of the various education departments, and in many cases, topping league tables for academic excellence.

I recently attended a ceremony to mark the birth, or rather the re-birth, of the Islamic School of Canberra, moving from its current site to a much larger one tin the suburb of Weston in order to satisfy local demand. With the ability to add high school age children, its enrolment is expected to more than double to around 900.

The move was being made with the support of the ACT Government, which had identified the site. Of course there were objections to be overcome, but all planning conditions were met and a sale price agreed.

ACT Chief Minister Jon Stanhope said the Islamic School of Canberra had made a positive contribution to the diversity and quality of education in the ACT.

"The Government is committed to supporting the establishment of an expanded Kindergarten-to-Year 12 Islamic School in Weston that will cater for future needs of the ACT and regional Muslim community," he said.

Contrast that with the silence of the Camden councillors, not one of whom was prepared to go on the record to state that, all other things being equal, they would have been in favour of the school.

I do not wish to be seen as an apologist for religion. Too many have died in its name throughout history, but for significant numbers it remains a relevant, even dominating factor in their lives. The freedom to practice it in accordance with the laws of a free and just society is a fundamental right we should all do well to uphold.

- Graham Cooke

Friday, March 5, 2010

The accidental tourist

Stephen Smith is currently on his third Ministerial trip to India - no Australian Foreign Minister has visited that country so often in such a short time.

What a shame it has taken a crisis in Australia-India relations caused by the senseless assaults on Indian nationals living in Melbourne to spark this long-overdue interest. Our relationship with the world's largest democracy deserves better.

However, if nothing else it has demonstrated the importance of the country as an economic partner. Just one sector is threatened - overseas education, but it is of sufficient weight to have Smith and other Government Minister beating a trail to New Delhi.

Let's look at some of the facts - by 2030 India is expected to overtake China as the world's most populous nation. More importantly, there are predictions that India will be the world's third largest economy by 2025.

That's just 15 years off, but the importance we place on India, compared to the obsession with the Chinese market, is laughable.

China is a totalitarian country. For the moment its rigid authoritarian system coupled with an aggressive opposition to democratic movements both at home and in many of the countries it trades with, is suiting it well. The Chinese people split into two categories - the growing middle classes dazzled by their new spending powers and intent on acquiring all the material possessions which for so long were beyond their reach, and the rural and urban poor - by far the largest segment - for whom life is still a day-to-day struggle for survival.

How long will it be before the upper strata of Chinese society begins to think of all the other things their counterparts in Western nations enjoy - freedom of speech, human rights, the ability to change the government if enough of them disagree with it?

And when that happens they will find plenty of footsoldiers among the poor and downtrodden who might see this as a chance to grab a bit of the wealth for themselves, not to mention oppressed Tibetans and Muslims in the Western provinces.

India also has many of these problems, but the difference here is that governments, national, state and local, ignore them at their peril - because poor people in India have the vote and exercise it regularly and vigorously.

Add to that a turbulent media sector, always looking for a good sensation ,and you get the feeling that India's surge to economic greatness, if far from perfect, is going to be spread far more evenly among its population.

I am currently reading the Daniel Lak book India Express which illustrates this point with a simple story about Ram, the press wallah who for years conducted his trade ironing the clothes of his clients from a ramshackle shed in a suburban street in Chennai. So good was this low cast Hindu at his work that he built up a great following among the middle classes, too busy making money to do their own ironing and pressing.

One day he had a request of his clients. If they would lend him the equivalent of $50 each to put his two sons through computer school, he would repay the loans with interest at some future date. Some 19 clients agreed to this although none expected to see the money, with or without interest, again.

But they were wrong, Ram stepped up his work rate, his sons got computer diplomas and joined one of the IT companies that were fuelling the country's technological revolution. Eventually, some years later, the money was repaid, with full interest.

It is hard to imagine Ram's story being repeated in China, where suffocating bureaucracy stifles upward mobility and those who do leave the land find themselves consigned to hell holes working in unsafe mines or factories.

Australia's relations with India are strengthening with a 50 per cent increase in bilaterial trade in the past year, but it is off a relatively low base; more needs to be done.

It is good that Mr Smith has made three visits to India; not so good that he is there primarily because of a few unsavoury incidents among Melbourne's low life. He needs to be something more than an accidental tourist.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Chinese push into Pacific paradise

Fiji remains the holiday destination of choice for many Australians. Flying into the international airport at Nadi, they are whisked away to their chosen resort for a week or fortnight luxuriating by hotel pools, scuba diving, surfing and enjoying the carefully managed display of local culture.

But all is not what it seems in paradise.

By following this well-worn tourist route, holidaymakers avoid the noise and bustle of the capital, Suva, where military dictator Frank Bainimarama is gradually tightening his grip on the leavers of power.

After deposing the democratically-elected Government in a 2006 coup, Bainimarama, who takes the title of Interim Prime Minister, has steadfastly refused to return Fiji to democratic rule in the near future, naming 2014 as a possible date, but leaving enough doubt about detail to suggest he will probably stay in power indefinitely.

He has turned Fiji into a pariah state in the eyes of the West, with suspension from the Commonwealth and the Pacific Island Forum - Bainimarama does not care, he has a powerful new friend.

Since the coup China has poured money into the country, stepping in o more than fill the gap left by its previous beneficiaries, Australia and New Zealand. Loans, grants and straight-out aid are virtually there for the asking - and China does not ask questions about the legitimacy of the people it is dealing with.

What does Australia make of this? It can be summed up in a barrage of weasel words from the former Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs, Duncan Kerr, during a seminar in Canberra last year.

"We welcome China's increased presence in the Pacific," Kerr said in answer to a question. "It is inevitable that China is a growing economic presence in the region and will have a growing economic footprint in the Pacific."

On China's increasingly cosy relationship with the Bainimarama regime: "I think it is very important for me not to respond in any way which might even be privately thought that we take a view of China is, in a sense, fermenting a difference between our position and the rest of the international community on Fiji.

"I do not fall into the cast of those who are warning against the dangers of China's presence in the region. We see broadly China's investment footprint as positive. We expect that an expanding economic power will expand also into the Pacific."

In other words, Kerr, on behalf of the Rudd Government, was playing the three wise monkeys rolled into one.

Australia has urged China to assist in efforts to return democracy to Fiji - talk about putting the vampire in charge of the blood bank. China's attitude to democracy can be summed up in a passage from the book of historian Yuan Wu chronicling the country's recent involvement in Africa.

"[Western Nations] in their customary deceitful fashion made democratic progress a condition of financial aid...Fortunately the scurrilous machinations of the West, which have caused so much tension within African nations, have been foiled, and the waves of democratisation on the continent have started to weaken since 1995."

China claims that its aid has no strings attached - a complete misrepresentation by a nation that measures every action by the advantage to its own interests. Beijing wants a blue-water navy with global reach and Fiji will prove a useful platform for an extension of that reach into the South Pacific.

And while Australia can still shovel its mineral wealth out of the ground and ship it north, there will only be more weasel words from Canberra.