Thursday, October 1, 2015

UN Expert Says Trade Agreements Need to Respect Human Rights

The first Independent Expert appointed by the UN to promote a democratic and equitable international order, Mr Alfred de Zayas, says that governments across the world need to put a stop to free trade and investment agreements that conflict with human rights treaty obligations.

He says "Over the past decades free trade and investment agreements have had adverse impacts on the enjoyment of human rights by interfering with the States's fundamental functions to legislate in the public interest and regulate fiscal, budgetary, labour, health, and environmental policies".

His report deplores the paradox resulting from assuming conflicting treaty obligations, where countries ratify human rights treaties, but then enter into agreements that prevent him from fulfilling their human rights obligations.

In particular he urges the abolition of the Investor-State Dispute Settlement mechanism in Trade and Investment Agreements. He says it "encroaches on the regulatory space of States and suffers from fundamental flaws including lack of independence, transparency, accountability and predictability".

"This dispute settlement mechanism has mutated into a privatised system of 'justice', incompatible with article 14(1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, whereby three arbitrators are allowed to override national legislation and the judgments of the highest national tribunals, in secret and with no possibility of appeal. This constitutes a grave challenge to the very essence of he rule of law."

Voting in Melbourne City Council Elections

A report commissioned by the Electoral Regulation Research Network recommends that only residents be allowed to vote in Melbourne City Council elections, that is to say that businesses would be banned from voting in them. Presently businesses are required to vote, and corporations operating in Melbourne are allocated two votes.

The lead author of the report, Monash University Associate Professor Ken Coghill, said giving votes to corporate entities and non-resident property owners was not democratic. He rejected the idea businesses should have a vote because they pay rates.

"The cry of 'no taxation without representation' is false: it is not accepted for voting in state or Commonwealth elections or in other democracies", Professor Coghill said.

The Municipal Association of Victoria opposes the idea. They say "a dominance of residential voters could see more focus on the amenity of living in the city, possibly at the expense of economic activity and development".

And the problem is?

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Building Excavation Not Good Enough

This morning I visited John Wade at his Engine Fit business in Nicholson Street Brunswick. His workshop has collapsed due to excavations next door. The damage is so great that it will almost certainly put him out of business for a year, threatening a 40 year family business.

But it could have been worse. If his son had not alerted everyone inside when he heard the wall cracking, enabling them to flee the building, there could have been injury or deaths.

This is not the first time Melbourne has seen building excavations causing chaos for next door properties. It raises two important questions. First, whether we should continue with the privatised system of building surveying introduced by the Kennett Government in the 1990s. Are building surveyors, who nowadays work for builders and developers, doing their job properly? Secondly, in our rush to cram more people into Melbourne in general and Moreland in particular, are we permitting high rise buildings that are not suitable for the land they are being built on?

I will await the findings of WorkSafe and Moreland Council, who are investigating the collapse, with great interest. Small family businesses like John Wade's deserve better than to be the innocent victims of developer greed and inadequate regulation.

Monday, September 28, 2015

457 Visa Workers Used to Undercut Australian Workers

I received a troubling letter from Mr Geoff McMahon, a constituent of mine who lives in North Coburg. Geoff is a 61 year old highly qualified electrical engineer. He has worked on numerous Australian fly in fly out resources jobs and says proudly that he has never been on the dole.

But in the last 18 months he has seen all his engineering roles handed to 457 visa workers, and has had just three months work.

He says Julie Bishop's statement that 457 visa workers who come to Australia are paid the same as their Australian counterparts "is a lie". He says he can testify from working alongside them that migrant workers are paid less. "While on the Santos GLNG project in Queensland, of the 105 engineers on gas compression Hub 04, I was one of two Australians, the rest were 457 visa workers. The Filipino engineers were paid $8 per hour. I told the Filipino that they are entitled to better pay. They all emphatically stated that they will not rock the boat and that $8 per hour was good pay for them".

Geoff McMahon concludes his letter with the plea "Please rid this country of 457 workers. I need to work". He is right. With 800,000 people in this country out of work – and many more like Geoff who don't count as unemployed but who are underemployed – 457s are an employer rort. We should wind down the 457 program and make sure Australian workers have the opportunities, the training, and the right financial incentives to do these jobs.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Election of Malcolm Turnbull as Liberal Leader

I congratulate Malcolm Turnbull on his election as Liberal Party Leader. It is an immense honour and privilege to lead the great nation of Australia and I wish him every success in this most important responsibility.

I also congratulate Bill Shorten, who has vanquished an elected Prime Minister in his first term, a tribute to his strong and effective leadership of the past two years.

The Australian people could have been served better by their political leaders in recent years, and I urge Malcolm Turnbull as Prime Minister to do three things.

First, give us evidence based policy, not ideology and voodoo. I am particularly thinking here of climate change. The level of public leadership of this issue by Tony Abbott was just appalling. Malcolm Turnbull has the chance to make Australia a team player in the international fight to cut carbon emissions. If he will not take a stronger target to Paris, he should certainly be willing to sign up to a stronger one at Paris in return for relevant commitments by other countries, which also have a role to play. He can also put a stop to the undermining of renewable energy and help rather than hinder the transition which Australia needs to make and is making.

Second, restore trust in politicians by keeping faith with election promises. The broken promises of the 2014 Budget were disastrous for Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey. Malcolm Turnbull should jettison them. He should in particular do away with the plan to deregulate student fees. Students are already fitted up with massive HECS-HELP debts; they should not be increased.

Third, he should be prepared to compromise and negotiate, rather than continue the ruthless take no prisoners approach of Mr Abbott. The China Free Trade Agreement is a case in point. Mr Abbott lost the support of the voters in Victoria and South Australia, and as a result he lost the support of Liberal MPs in those states, who feared losing their seats. Victoria and South Australia are referred to as the AFL States, but that was not Tony Abbott's problem. His problem was that they are manufacturing states. His government was prepared to trash manufacturing in order to get an outcome for agriculture. Last week I visited the Alucoil factory, a manufacturer just north of my electorate, where unemployment is over 20 per cent, which is threatened by cheap imports as a consequence of the China Free Trade Deal.

Malcolm Turnbull should reject this winner take all approach to politics and be prepared to compromise. Labor wants to negotiate protections for Australian workers against unfair competition from easily exploited temporary foreign workers. The China Free Trade Agreement does away with labour market testing for nurses, engineers, electricians, motor mechanics, and 200 other occupations. And if the China Free Trade Agreement has such public support as the Government claims, why is it that after weeks of pushing it in the Parliament that Malcolm Turnbull could say the Liberal Party was headed for electoral oblivion and have a clear majority of his colleagues agree with him?

Finally, when Labor replaced Kevin Rudd with Julia Gillard because we were headed for defeat in 2010 the chorus of scorn and derision from the Liberal Party and the media was deafening. We were told we had no right to do this. Now that the Liberal Party has taken precisely the same action, we await the relevant apologies.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

China Share Meltdown Shows Folly of Too Many Eggs in One Basket

China is our largest trading partner – our largest export market and our largest source of imports. Last week there was a hearing of the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties on the China Free Trade Agreement. At that Hearing I asked a Department of Foreign Affairs Deputy Secretary whether such a great reliance on China made Australia vulnerable to their economic fortunes, and asked whether Australia might be better served by trying to diversify, or become more self-reliant.

The Deputy Secretary's reply expressed puzzlement at my describing our trade relationship with China as making us potentially vulnerable. She was clearly of the view that the more trade the better, and that we could not possibly have too much of this good thing.

But I think the dramatic events on global share markets in the past week have borne out my concern. Commentators have regularly mentioned how dependent Australia is on China, using expressions such as "If China sneezes, Australia catches a cold". We are referred to as one of the commodity exporting countries at risk if China's growth is less than expected.

The fact is that we have put a lot of eggs in the China basket. For the past thirty years we have engaged in an experiment, putting our faith in globalisation and free trade. We have allowed our manufacturing industries to go to the wall and have allowed our economic base to narrow. As a result we are less self-sufficient and more vulnerable than we used to be more vulnerable than is good for us.

This is one of the reasons for my concern about the China Free Trade Agreement. I hope the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Australian Government will take a good hard look at what has been happening in the past few months, and rethink a strategy that is all about commodities and to hell with manufacturing. Australia needs to be more independent, self-sufficient and self-reliant than the policies of the past thirty years have left us.

Tax Cuts Less Important than Balancing the Books

After its election the Liberal Government waxed long and hard about what it called a Budget Emergency. There was no end to the shrill and hysterical rhetoric about the state of the Budget and the prospect of Budget Deficits into the future.

The Budget Emergency was used as the alibi for all manner of attacks on public services and lower income earners in the 2014 Budget. It was the justification for the cutting of pension indexation. It was the justification for the deregulating of fees for university students. It was the justification for a new payment to visit the doctor. It was the justification for cuts of billions of dollars in health and education for the States. It was the justification for cuts to foreign aid, legal aid, and the ABC. It was the justification for abandoning the promise to implement the Gonski funding which had been promised to schools.

When we voted against these broken promises, these harsh and counterproductive austerity measures, the Labor Opposition was attacked relentlessly for sabotaging the Government's efforts to "repair the Budget".

Then, disappearing almost as suddenly as it came, the Budget Emergency vanished. The 2015 Budget took a new tack altogether. The Government stopped talking about it, and if asked about it, suggested they now had the problem under control.

But the fact is that the Budget Deficits are still there. And yet Treasurer Hockey now talks about tax cuts! What a lightweight Joe Hockey is. He is totally incoherent on the subject of economic management. He must think the Australian electorate has the memory of a goldfish, that people will forget that only last year he was lecturing us day in day out on the need to balance the books.
The fact is that balancing the books does matter, and we should not be talking about tax cuts – and note that it is only talk, there is no substance to this talk whatsoever – until we have the books in a healthier condition, and have taken serious action to crack down on tax avoidance. It is not prudent or responsible to spend money we don't have, and Joe Hockey damages the credibility of politicians generally when he abandons the idea of fiscal discipline without any rational basis for doing so.