Thursday, February 26, 2015

United Nations Security Council Veto

On Monday in Parliament I moved a motion stressing the superiority of collective security through the United Nations over unilateral action. In my speech I drew attention to the increasing level of global violence and asked the question, why doesn't the United Nations do more to make civilians safe?

The answer I gave was that the permanent members of the UN Security Council, who have a veto power over UN action, are prepared to turn a blind eye to, to cover up, the sins and misdeeds of their allies and supporters. I urged that we be less fatalistic about the conduct of the big powers, and demand that they allow the United Nations to do its job of protecting civilians.

I therefore welcome the call by Amnesty International's Secretary-General, Salil Shetty, in Amnesty's Annual Report for the UN Security Council to adopt a code of conduct agreeing to voluntarily refrain from using the Veto in a way which would block Security Council action in situations of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. The Secretary-General notes that such a step could save many lives, and that the proposal is now backed by 40 governments. He said the Security Council’s permanent members were using their power of veto to “promote their political self-interest or geopolitical interest above the interest of protecting civilians”.

Amnesty International's 2014/15 Report documents a frightening catalogue of human rights abuses and increasing global violence. It describes 2014 as a devastating year for those seeking to stand up for human rights, and those caught up in war zones. It's findings are consistent with those of the Institute for Economics and Peace, which found that since 2000 there has been a five-fold increase in the number of people killed by terrorism.

We can do better than this. The permanent members of the UN Security Council should stop using their veto to try to gain strategic advantage for their country, and start using the United Nations for the purpose for which it was established - to protect civilians and prevent conflict.

The Hon. Kelvin Thomson

Federal Member for Wills

Monday, February 23, 2015

Melbourne Heat Island Effect

Last year I did research into, and gave speeches about, the public health benefits of public open space. My view about the importance of this is reinforced by recent statements in the Moreland Leader by University of Sydney Associate Professor Tonia Gray that research shows that neighbourhoods with more green spaces are much healthier and socially cohesive. She says, "Nature has a calming effect, it recalibrates your body. Australian kids spend an average of 52 hours a week in front of a screen but an average of 40 minutes outside".

The importance of trees and vegetation cover is also reinforced by research calling for Melbourne suburbs to increase their tree cover to combat rising temperatures. The urban heat island effect occurs when built-up areas with surfaces such as roads, concrete and buildings absorb heat on hot days. It is dangerous to public health. In 2013 and 2014 over 400 Victorians were admitted to hospital for heat related illness. Researchers say "heat islands" are only going to get hotter unless more green spaces are incorporated.

Given this, it is folly to allow dual occupancy, multi-unit and high rise developments to lead to the cutting down of trees and shrubs and the paving over of open spaces which are presently cooling Melbourne down. We need to push back against plans by property developers and council officers to allow more buildings in what are already built up suburbs.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Melbourne's "Hyper-Dense" Skyscrapers

The co-ordinator of Melbourne's City Plans and Policy, Leanne Hodyl, has pointed out in a Churchill Fellowship paper that Melbourne's high rise apartment towers are being built with far fewer controls than apply in other cities around the world.

Her report found that –

  1. High-rise apartment towers in Central Melbourne are being built at four times the maximum densities allowed in some of the world's most crowded cities, including Hong Kong, New York, and Tokyo.
  2. The skyscrapers are being built with little regard to the effect on residents within, the impact on the streets below or the value of neighbouring properties because of weak, ineffective or non-existent state government policies.
  3. In Melbourne, planning controls offer "cheap density" to developers, because they are able to ratchet up the number of apartments in a tower with only a very limited need to make any significant community contribution, but other cities studied are not choosing to develop in this way.
In Vancouver, for example, developers are allowed to cram high numbers of apartments into a project only if they agree to help fund construction of parks, plazas, childcare centres, cinemas, performing arts spaces and the like.

Ms Hodyl warns that continuing planning policies supporting high-density CBD growth and continued overseas investment could have dire and long-lasting impacts. "It will create a legacy of apartments that are of poor quality – homes that lack access to light, air and an outlook and that diminish the quality of the streets and parks below".

The report is backed by international planner Gary Lawrence, former planning director for the City of Seattle, now with engineers AECOM. Shown the density and height of buildings on the block, he said "This cluster of towers would never be built in New York", and “The idea of creating a liveable city at this density is crazy".

Thursday, February 5, 2015

457 Visa Rort Revealed

It is troubling to hear reported today more allegations of fraud and rorting within Australia’s migrant worker program, with the Immigration Department conducting a series of raids on a multinational firm working on major Australian mining and infrastructure projects.

The raids targeted the offices of Murphy Pipe & Civil (MPC), with documents and other material seized. The firm has allegedly assisted dozens of Irish workers to fraudulently obtain 457 temporary skilled and other visas.

These allegations make even more worrying the Liberal Government’s decision to relax requirements around 457 ‘temporary’ work visas to make it much easier for Australian businesses to import foreign workers, as well as seeking to introduce a “short-term mobility visa”, which would allow employers to hire specialised workers for up to 12 months.

In an economy where unemployment is a big problem, a situation that will get worse before it gets better as mining investment unwinds and the local car industry closes, it makes no sense to be relaxing foreign workers visas.

The Prime Minister talks about “growth and jobs”, but the real intention of this government is to use the migration program to drive down wages and conditions, using the global labour market to smash trade unions.
ACTU President Ged Kearney and Secretary Dave Oliver are absolutely right to focus on the rorting of 457 visas – they constitute an existential threat to the trade union movement.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Ripping Off the Future

Tony Abbott told the National Press Club “We’ve never been a country that’s ripped off future generations to pay for today”. In fact that is precisely what  we are doing – trashing the environment, letting the planet heat up, and fitting up our young people with student debt, job insecurity, and housing unaffordability.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Queensland Government Knocks Over the Witches Hats

In 2010 I visited Queensland on several occasions to give speeches about rapid population growth, in Brisbane, on the Sunshine Coast, and at the Woodford Folk Festival. I encountered great unhappiness at the impact rapid population growth was having in Brisbane and South-East Queensland, and was not surprised when the Queensland Labor Government was defeated in 2012, although the scale of the defeat was remarkable.

In many respects the Queensland Government had fallen victim to the same problems that had beset the Victorian Labor Government which was defeated in 2010. But like the Victorian Labor Party the Queensland Labor Party has now pulled off an astonishing turnaround, apparently regaining office in a single term and toppling an elected Premier in the process. Ted Baillieu was replaced by his own party and did not get to contest the election; Campbell Newman lost his seat.

Political commentators are astonished at this growing political volatility. Kevin Rudd was elected as Prime Minister and replaced by Julia Gillard before the 2010 election. She in turn was replaced by Kevin Rudd before the 2013 election. It is now widely speculated that Tony Abbott, too, will not get to seek re-election as Prime Minister. So what is going on?

No doubt factors like broken election promises, the 24/7 media cycle, the Global Financial Crisis, and voters choosing State and Federal Governments of different complexions, are having an impact. But one feature of the past decade is regularly overlooked. In 2004 Australia had a net migration program of 100,000. Then in the space of three years it ratcheted up to well over 200,000, where it has stayed. This doubling has given Australia rapid population growth for the past decade – we now have an extra million people every three years. Prime Minister Howard, who introduced this rapid increase, lost his seat at the 2007 election.

I have become convinced that rapid population growth and political instability go hand in hand. I think of this as the Witches' Hats theory of government. Think about those Advanced Driving Courses that require drivers to drive in slalom fashion through a set of plastic or rubber orange cones, commonly called witches hats. The driver's mission is to avoid the hats. If they hit a certain number, they fail the test.

I think the re-election task of a government has some similarities. It you think of each hat as an area of public policy, such as education, health, housing, transport, aged care etc, if a government mucks up an area of public policy it is akin to hitting one of the witches' hats. If a government hits a number of hats, ie fails a number of public policy tasks, it is likely to be voted out, just as the driver who hits the hats won't get their Advanced Driving Qualification.

Now it seems pretty obvious that if you're a driver, you are much more likely to avoid the hats if you are travelling at 50 kph, whereas if you're driving at 100 kph, you're pretty likely to hit some hats. And if you're a government you're much more likely to solve peoples' problems if you have a population that is growing slowly, rather than one that is growing rapidly.

The Queensland and Victorian Liberal Governments were elected on the back of public discontent with issues such as planning, public transport, cost of living, housing unaffordability and job insecurity. But as these things had been caused by rapid population growth, and the growth continued, they did not solve those problems, and paid a massive electoral price for it. For example Governments get punished for trying to sell off public assets. They do it to raise money to build new infrastructure, or pay down debts incurred as a result of past infrastructure building. But they would not need so much money, or so much infrastructure, if the population wasn't growing so fast. The Queensland academic Jane O'Sullivan says that population growth of 2 per cent doubles the infrastructure task compared with that in a stable population.

It is not only in Australia that rapid population growth drives political instability. It happens right around the world. Governments in the Scandinavian countries with slow population growth are able to solve people's problems and enjoy considerable political life expectancy. Countries which have high birth rates, like Egypt, Nigeria and the Philippines, have chaos. In the Pacific Islands Samoa has had a relatively stable population, and stable government, for decades, whereas Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands have had neither.

It is not fashionable to focus on our past decade of rapid population growth as a cause of Australia's political instability and volatility. Some are happier focussing on the alleged personal qualities of our leaders – they heap praise or derision on Anna Bligh, or Tony Abbott, or Campbell Newman, when the fact is that a different leader with the same policies would have led to the same result. Others want to interpret election results through a highly ideological prism, and come unstuck as a consequence of believing too much of their own propaganda.
It is probably too late for Tony Abbott. But perhaps his successor, or successors, and other political leaders around Australia, might want to ask themselves "do I want to be yet another casualty of our equivalent of the Colosseum, or do I want a respectable time in office, as Prime Ministers and Premiers had as recently as the 80s and 90s?"  And if so, isn't the way to improve my political life expectancy to slow the population car down and focus on solving people's real life problems?