Category: Civil Rights & Liberties

O’Farrell Government’s Attacks and Cuts

Since taking office in March 2011, Barry O’Farrell and his Government have made a number of cuts to funding, jobs, workers’ rights and services. Here is an overview of what the workers of NSW have endured thus far.


Attacks on Workers’ Rights

Taken Control of IRC and Frozen Wages

-                   The Government passed the Industrial Relations (Public Sector Conditions of Employment) Act 2011. Consequently the Government has given itself complete power to determine wage increases (or not) and conditions for public sector staff through Regulations which do not have to pass any votes in the Parliament.

-                   The Industrial Relations Commission has had its power to arbitrate wage disputes removed.

-                   So far, the Government has frozen wage increases for public sector workers at 2.5%. Whilst the O’Farrell Government has claimed this will not leave public sector workers worse off, the University of Sydney’s Workplace Research Centre found that a nurse would be $12, 232 worse off and a teacher $14, 580 worse off each year had the O’Farrell policy been applied over the past decade.

Attacked Injured Workers

-                   Government amendments to the Workers Compensation Act saw significant cuts to the support and compensation provided to injured workers.

-                   The cuts to Workers Compensation means weekly payments will cease after 2.5 years and medical costs will stop being paid after 3.5 years for most injured workers.

-                   Additionally, workers will have almost non-existent coverage for accidents on their way to or from work.

-                   No lump sum payments can be made for pain and suffering, regardless of the severity of the injury.

-                   Changes to weekly benefits, medical costs and duration of payments are to apply as soon as possible to existing claims.

-                   The O’Farrell government attributed the needs for the cuts to a ‘deficit’ in WorkCover. The cuts have shifted the blame of the ‘deficit’ onto injured workers, with the Government hoping for a reduction in insurance premiums for employers.

 

Stripped Police of their Death and Disability Protection

-                   The Government’s Police Amendment (Death and Disability) Act 2011 severely cut the support and rehabilitation provided to police who are injured on the job, as well as support for families of police officers killed at work.

Attacked Workers’ Rights to Fairly Bargain Collectively

-                   Currently before Parliament is the Government’s Industrial Relations Amendment (Dispute Orders) Bill 2012. If this Bill is passed, it will increase fines for taking industrial action from $10,000 a day to $110,000 a day.

-                   It is also important to remember as mentioned above that unions no longer have the right to independent arbitration over wages and conditions and unlike the Federal industrial relations system have no legal right to strike through protected action.

No Consultation around Significant Industrial Changes

-                   By way of example The Technical and Further Education Commission Amendment (Staff Employment) Act 2011 saw 13,000 TAFE teachers transferred to the Federal industrial relations system where they now fall under the Fair Work Act

-                   No consultations with unions or teachers were attempted prior to the introduction and subsequent passing of this Act.

-                   Similarly, Government abolished the Transport Appeals Board with no discussion with unions.

Forcing Retail Workers to Work on Public Holidays

-                   The Retail Trading Amendment Bill 2012 presented by the O’Farrell Government will allow all retailers to trade on Boxing Day and Easter Sunday which will see employees being forced to work on what should be a day for families.

-                   The Bill will also lead to backroom staff and staff of retail businesses working on Christmas Day and Good Friday.

 No Support for Equal Pay

-                   The most recent State budget has not allocated any funding to equal pay for social and community sector workers in line with the recent Fair Work findings.

-                   There are 30,000 community and public sector workers in NSW. Without NSW funding these workers will not receive the awarded increases in full which range from 19 – 41 per cent.

-                   Prior to the election O’Farrell promised social and community sector workers a fair and equitable pay rise.

Slashing Public Sector Entitlements

-                   The O’Farrell Government has applied to the NSW Industrial Relations Commission to change 98 different Public Sector Awards and enact massive cuts to entitlements and benefit.

-                   Some of the cuts include: slashing annual leave loading, cutting penalty rates for shift workers, removal of additional sick leave entitlements and parental leave.

Sharp rise in youth homelessness shatters stereotypes

by James Farrell

The number of Australians who were homeless on census night increased by 17% to 105,237 in the five years to August 2011. When adjusted for population growth, the increase the increase is still worryingly high, at around 8%. It’s clear we need a stronger commitment to address this significant social issue.

The census data, released this week by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), continues to shatter the stereotype of homelessness: the middle-aged alcoholic or drug-addicted man sleeping in a park.

Rather, 60% of people experiencing homelessness were under 35 years old, and an incredible 17% were aged under ten. The ABS acknowledges that census methodology is likely to underestimate youth homelessness, so the number is probably higher than the estimated 44,083 Australians under 25 currently recognised as homelessness.

As subsequent research from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare shows, these young people will be more likely to be involved in child protection and juvenile justice services, further entrenching their disadvantage.

Almost half (44%) of homeless Australians were women; with women and children the fastest growing group seeking assistance from specialist homelessness services. This number, however, does not include women and children remaining in unsafe housing and continuing violent relationships. The ABS recognises that data sources other than the census must be used to better understand the incidence of family violence and the consequences on housing security and homelessness.

In welcome news, the number of people “sleeping rough” (in improvised dwellings, tents or sleeping out) decreased from 7,247 in 2006 to 6,813 in 2011. But more people are sheltered in such substandard overcrowded housing as to warrant being classed as being homeless; this group increased from 31,531 in 2006 to 41,390 in 2011.

The homelessness rate grew by more than 20% in New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania, with a gob-smacking 70% rise in the ACT. Meanwhile, the largest fall was in the Northern Territory, which still has (by far) the highest proportion of people experiencing homelessness (731 people per 100,000 population, compared with a national average of 48.9).

The ABS has acknowledged it has further work to do to understand and measure homelessness experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, which goes a long way to explaining the NT’s massive homelessness rates.

The ABS report has been the subject of significant media coverage, much of it couched in terms of the failure of governments to reduce homelessness. But given the social and economic changes since 2006, it’s surprising that the growth wasn’t higher.

Rather than whacking governments, the ABS data shows a need for governments to continue their efforts to address homelessness.

 

 Committing to end homelessness

The Commonwealth’s 2008 white paper on homelessness, The Road Home, boldly aims to halve homelessness by 2020 and offer accommodation to all rough sleepers. Similarly, states and territories have introduced bold and targeted action plans to address homelessness.

These commitments have been underpinned by important agreements between the Commonwealth and the states and territories. The National Affordable Housing Agreement (NAHA) focuses on early intervention and prevention strategies, better assistance for people with multiple support needs, and providing ongoing assistance to ensure stability for clients post-crisis. The National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness (NPAH) outlines funding arrangements for specific projects and commits partners to addressing agreed outcomes through program delivery.

But these agreements end in June 2013, making the next few months a vital time for the agreements to be renegotiated. At his address to the National Press Club this week, Housing Minister Brendan O’Connor committed to providing half the funds required for another year while the NPAH is renegotiated.

The states are yet to meet this commitment and are seeking additional resources from the Commonwealth. Details will be discussed at today’s meeting of housing ministers in Brisbane.

In addition to resourcing, more work needs to be done to ensure homelessness services are sufficiently funded and effectively delivered. To achieve this, we need to establish a monitoring system with nationally consistent, evidence-based measures to assess the effectiveness of homelessness services. This will allow us to focus on the outcomes of people experiencing or at risk of homelessness, rather than just on the number of people being provided with services.

As the ABS figures show, homelessness continues to be a social crisis in Australia today. Governments, and the broader community, must redouble their commitments to address, and ultimately end, this significant social policy challenge.

James Farrell is currently a Director of the Council to Homeless Persons, Treasurer of the Federation of Community Legal Centres and the National Association of Community Legal Centres and a member of the StreetSmart Australia grants committee.

This article was first published at www.theconversation.edu.au

 

Royal Commission: abuse victims need to be helped, not just heard

by Michael Salter

There has been a great deal of focus on the role of a Royal Commission in delivering “justice” for victims of sexual abuse. Justice is a powerful, symbolic principle, and being listened to can be a moving and meaningful experience for survivors. My experience interviewing child abuse survivors suggests the opportunity to tell their story in a validating and comfortable environment can have a range of emotional benefits for them.

However, once the drama of the Royal Commission is over, survivors must return to their day-to-day lives. Some recover well, but many continue to experience high rates of depression, anxiety, substance abuse and suicide. They suffer in silence or are bounced between health and welfare services that are not funded to meet their needs. The worst affected wind up in prison or on the streets.

NSW premier Barry O’Farrell said that sexual abuse has “robbed young children of their futures”. The implication is that the lives of child abuse survivors have been irrevocably compromised and the only substantive action we can take is to prevent abuse from occurring in the first place; once it has happened, it’s too late to do much. This represents the state’s failure to provide adequate health services to child abuse survivors.

Ensuring the quality of life of survivors into the future should be a key focus of the recommendations of the Royal Commission. Safety and justice are fundamental human rights, but so are health and wellbeing. The World Health Organisation defines health as an individual and collective “resource for everyday life”. We build and preserve this resource as a community, first by creating healthy environments in which people can live happily and safely, and second by ensuring that care and support are available.

In both regards, Australia has failed child abuse survivors. They grew up in spaces where they were not safe or protected. Many were not provided with the opportunity to disclose what had happened to them, or when they did, they were ignored. Now, as adults, they find themselves unable to access health care that addresses the impact of trauma and abuse on their lives.

As a result, they are often subject to inappropriate, ineffective or even dangerous forms of treatment that compound the harms of abuse. But effective treatment does exist for child abuse survivors. The fact is that successive governments have not invested in them, made them available or provided enough abuse-specific training to the health workforce.

Royal Commissions have the power and scope to address systemic policy issues. The prevention, detection and reporting of child abuse is one such issue. Providing and ensuring access to effective mental health care in the aftermath of abuse is the other side of the coin – and it has long been neglected. Child abuse is at the very centre of the burden of mental illness in the community. Until steps are taken to address the health needs of survivors, this burden will remain, at a significant financial cost to the community, not to mention the personal cost to survivors, their friends and families.

When it comes to child abuse, justice, safety and health are inextricably linked. Children protected from abuse are less vulnerable to mental illness. Where they are abused, early detection and intervention can result in better outcomes for the child, and the identification of offenders and protection of other children.

For those victims enduring the long-term impacts of abuse, however, real justice must deliver more than the symbolic opportunity to attest to their victimisation. It must provide them with access to the care and support that has previously been denied them.

This is one of the main challenges that faces the Royal Commission and, in my view, if this challenge is not addressed then the current rhetoric about justice and safety will remain just that – rhetoric.

Michael Salter is a lecturer in criminology at the University of Western Sydney.

This article was first published at www.theconversation.edu.au

 

R18+ rating added for videogames … but are children protected?

New guidelines for the classification of videogames have been released by Federal Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare and, despite being a step in the right direction, the revisions are largely disappointing and a missed opportunity.

The Guidelines for the Classification of Computer Games – which were revised to account for the introduction of an R18+ classification – are an important step towards the enhanced protection of minors which has been held out as a result of the reform.

Under the existing system, the highest legal classification a game can be given is MA15+. This year the Parliament has amended the law to allow an R18+ classification, in response to community concerns that the strong, contextually justified violence available in MA15+ was not suitable for anybody under 18. However it was necessary to change the guidelines to ensure that level of violence would no longer be available at MA15+.

While the revised guidelines show an obvious intent to meet community expectations about enhanced protection for minors – by tightening up the level of violence permissible at MA15+ – there was a disappointing lack of public consultation during their creation.

Instead the draft guidelines were simply placed on a website, with no proper call for public comment. As the guidelines are more important to the policy aim than the introduction of the new classification, consultation on them should have been at least as widely publicised.

Nor does there appear to have been any proper legislative drafting process; rather the guidelines were passed around for individual ministers to make their own changes and additions.

The result is a patch-up job with minimal substantive changes. Worse, some of the wording is awkward and unclear.

The test for sexual violence at the R18+ level, for instance, stretches logic by distinguishing between “implied sexual violence” which is “visually depicted”, and that which is not visually depicted.

The guidelines go on to state that the classification does not permit implied sexual violence that is visually depicted if it is “interactive, not justified by context or related to incentives or rewards”. I doubt any self-respecting legislative drafter would have mixed up positives and negatives in this way.

The new guidelines also contain a restriction on depictions of “actual” sexual activity, thereby failing to recognise that nothing in a game is “actual”. The word, I imagine, was chosen to make a distinction from depictions of “implied” sexual activity, but if this was the case, a drafter would have known that the appropriate word would have been “explicit”.

Perhaps more importantly, the new guidelines contain more changes on sexual activity, nudity and drug use than they do on violence. It was violence driving the push for an R18+ classification in the first place and violence should have been central to the changes.

Rather, the violence-related changes come across as an afterthought; for example, all classification levels contain changes relating to sex, drugs and nudity but the criteria for non-sexual violence change only at G and MA15+. The dominance of the sex-related changes, in my view, further entrenches the classification system as one based on moralistic concerns rather than the clear evidence about what can influence children’s development in detrimental ways.

I have been disappointed (but not surprised) to see a renewal of claims by the gaming industry of an absence of evidence violent interactive games (by demanding active engagement) can have a stronger influence on users than film (which demands only passive engagement).

Interactive games may not have been around long enough for there to be conclusive evidence about enhanced impact through interactivity, but as this UNICEF Multigrade Teacher’s Handbook reminds us, we do have plenty of evidence that children learn better by doing than by watching, especially through repetition and rewards.

The analogy to interactive and passive media experiences is powerful enough to justify a different approach to the classification of games.

Of course the comments sections of articles and online forums are still full of pundits protesting about an alleged lack of evidence that violent media of any kind can have an influence on its users.

These claims sound strange coming at the end of a lengthy campaign for an R18+ classification that was driven by hand-wringing about all the inappropriate material currently available to minors at MA15+.

I’ve yet to meet anyone who disagrees some games are inappropriate for minors – the problem is that some people are happy to reach that conclusion based on a moralistic assessment of the material, or on gut-feeling and guesswork, or on the intent of the developer, rather than on the weight of the scientific evidence that exists as to how violent media can influence people’s thoughts, attitudes and behaviour.

People who weigh in to the debate over the appropriate role of this evidence in policy formation nearly always presume that the main, or only, question is whether violent media begets violent behaviour. In doing so they overlook the more subtle but potentially widespread influences on thoughts and especially attitudes.

Desensitisation to violence is at least as big a concern for the future of our society as increased tendencies to aggressive behaviour. Possibly more so because, while parents and carers have some opportunity to notice and address behavioural changes, attitudinal ones might go unnoticed and unchecked until it is too late.

The revised guidelines for videogames are another lost opportunity for a root-and-branch, considered review to base the classification system on the science, rather than on guesswork and moral judgment.

If we are going to have a classification system based on the wide recognition that media content can be harmful to minors, it’s imperative that we take seriously the evidence about what is harmful, and build the criteria around that.

Elizabeth Handsley is aProfessor of Law at Flinders University.

This article was originally published online at The Conversation.

Breivik court verdict: security lessons?

by Robert Lambert 

Now that the legal question of Anders Breivik’s sanity has been resolved it should be possible to focus more closely on his political motivation and the security lessons that arise from this case. This should help inform a debate about how best to tackle the growing problem of far right violence in Europe and the US

Today Anders Breivik’s trial came to a conclusion when he was found to be sane and sentenced to a maximum twenty one years in prison. Previously two teams of court-appointed psychiatrists who examined Breivik had reached opposite conclusions. The first said that he was a paranoid schizophrenic, and the second assessed him to be sane.

As the psychiatrist Tad Tietse noted in respect of the first report, it may have told us ‘more about the socially embedded nature of psychiatric diagnosis and the prevailing political climate in Norway than any claim it was the result of some kind of cold, hard, value-free science’. Be that as it may, it is to be hoped that if and when the next serious case of far right terrorism takes place in Europe or the US, governments, police and judiciary will have a better grasp of the political rationale that drives it irrespective of the mental profile(s) of the individual perpetrator(s).

To express the same point on a different premise:  it is to be hoped that far right terrorists will in the future be treated the same as all other terrorists. Whether they operate as ‘lone wolves’ (or ‘solo terrorists’) their far right political affiliations (like Breivk’s prior membership of the Progress Party) should not be lightly disregarded.

Notably, the legal and medical fixation with Breivik’s mental health followed an immediate interest in the same topic by political commentators determined to deny a political terrorist motivation for Breivik’s violence.

Such a strong focus on the mental wellbeing of the accused is unusual in a case of political terrorism. That said, cases of political terrorism are rare in Norway and it is probable that the psychiatrists in the case lacked experience of examining politically motivated individuals like Breivik. Unfamiliarity with political violence might help explain a failure on the part of the first team of psychiatrists to grasp the significance of Breivik’s lengthy manifesto 2083 – A European Declaration of Independence - a document he circulated to hundreds of contacts that helps reveal the extent to which he was influenced by a global anti-Muslim movement known as the Counter Jihad Movement.

Significantly, the counter-jihad movement contains commentators who are notoriously quick to link a handful of al-Qaeda terrorist attacks in Europe and the US to what they call the ideology of radical Islam or Islamism (or sometimes Islam itself). In fact, the links (in terms of a shared political ideology) may be much closer between prominent members of the counter jihad movement and Breivik than between most al-Qaeda terrorists and many mainstream Muslims who are regularly and pejoratively stigmatised as fellow travellers or closet supporters of al-Qaeda by the counter jihad movement.

It should not be left to Breivik to explain and promote his political motivation and his political campaign from his prison cell. Now is the time to expose it, discern its proximity to the counter jihad movement and, at some points, its alarming appropriation of mainstream discourse on Islamism, Muslims and immigration. To hide instead behind the legalities of sanity and insanity serves Breivik’s victims – and the unknown or unremarked victims of countless acts of lesser political violence against Muslims, ethnic minorities, immigrants and their allies – very poorly indeed.

Duty to the victims and the bereaved

The overwhelming majority of Anders Breivik’s victims were young, left wing activists who would still be alive today if their killer had not taken his attachment to far right politics to such a lethal conclusion. While their bereaved parents, siblings, relatives and friends are bound to be relieved that Breivik has finally been brought to justice at least some will, in addition, be eager to understand why and how he carried out his violent acts as part of their difficult bereavement journeys.

For some it may be comforting to witness the overwhelming majority of their fellow citizens standing steadfastly against a significant minority of far right bigots. But political terrorists like Breivik are always a tiny minority (within a much larger community of like minded activists) who will seek to conceal their preparations so as to avoid detection prior to carrying out their criminal attacks. Therefore, for all that is positive and effective in ‘open confrontation with right-wing bloggers and activists’ as a ‘strategy to combat [far right] extremism’ it is also necessary to tackle far right terrorism and political violence as effectively as any other kind, including that which is carried out or threatened by Muslim extremists, generally under an al-Qaeda banner .

Police failings

Just weeks before the verdict was announced, an official report highlighted police failings that may have prevented Breivik being arrested shortly after his first bomb attack against a government building in Oslo and before he landed on Utoya Island to carry out a shooting spree. The report also highlighted a separate police failure to arrive on Utoya Island as speedily as possible and thereby bring an earlier halt to the killing.

The second of these two failures revolved around a decision by police officers to wait for expert colleagues before taking a ferry to Utoya Island – a disturbing scenario that suggests a negative example of ‘health and safety’ culture overruling a fundamental police commitment to public safety. As a result Norway’s police chief Oeystein Maeland resigned from his post.

Less explicit, the report suggested that ‘with better ways of working and a broader focus, the police security service could have become aware of the perpetrator prior to 22 July’. This might well be taken to refer to missed intelligence opportunities to monitor Breivik after he purchased ingredients for his bomb. It is hard to imagine that such a failure would have occurred if Breivik had instead been an identifiable Muslim purchasing the same ingredients in the same circumstances.

The report was oddly silent on Breivik’s far right political motivation saying instead that it had ‘foregone issues related to the perpetrator’s motive….’ and intriguingly, that it had ‘not explored the measures society puts in place for the early prevention of radicalisation’.

Far right radicalisation

How might the ‘early prevention of radicalisation’ relate to Breivik’s case? Had Breivik been a member or associate of a white supremacist or neo-Nazi organisation it is reasonably safe to assume that he would have been actively monitored by police and police security services. Instead, Breivik was able to take advantage of the fact that his prior membership of the Progress Party and his wide engagement with the counter jihad movement was apparently not regarded as evidence of ‘extremism’ or as a basis for reasonable suspicion in his activities.

There are numerous examples of how ‘the new far right’ has successfully re-invented itself and created sufficient distance from ‘the old far right’ so as to become immune to pro-active police and security investigation. In the UK, for example, government and police have steadfastly refused to cast the English Defence League (EDL) in the role of ‘extremists’ despite a growing catalogue of violence carried out by its members and supporters. In consequence EDL (and their counter-jihad counterparts across Europe and the US) are considered as more of a public order or social cohesion problem than a counter-terrorist or political violence issue. As a result they are not considered as suitable for ‘counter-radicalisation’ strategies in the way that supposedly ‘radical’ Muslims often are.

Instead, in Norway, across Europe and the US, ‘the early prevention of radicalisation’ has come to denote intrusive strategies that are aimed at individual Muslims who are suspected or deemed to be at risk of radicalisation into violent (or increasingly non violent) Muslim extremism (which includes terrorism inspired or directed by al–Qaeda). The UK has been a leader in this field of work and while some work carried out under the Prevent umbrella has been narrowly and effectively focused on terrorism and violent extremism other strands of work has been ineffective and counter-productive by virtue of being too broadly cast against politically active Muslims who pose no threat to security or social cohesion.

It is far from certain that any of Anders Breivik’s victims – particularly those members of AUF (Labour Youth) killed on Utoya Island who he regarded as prime targets – would be alive today if their killer had received psychiatric treatment or counselling during the months he was planning his acts of terrorism. In contrast, it is safe to assume that the AUF summer camp of 2011 would have reached a peaceful non-violent conclusion if Breivik had not become influenced by the Counter Jihad Movement. So rather than medical help did Breivik need political counselling?

This is not an idle thought. In neighbouring Sweden, for example, there is an experienced street based group in Stockholm called Exit run by former far right activists that helps individuals disengage from far right politics and far right violence. Admittedly, Breivik was not as visibly engaged in far right politics as some Exit clients but if he had been subject to closer security monitoring it is entirely feasible that he could have been ear marked for such an intervention.

Even handed counter-terrorism policy

However, so long as the disparate elements of the counter jihad movement in particular, and the new far right movement in general, are wrongly treated as somehow representing a lesser threat of extremism and violence than their less sophisticated neo-Nazi colleagues in the old far right we will fail to tackle the motivation for both Breivik’s actions and hundreds of acts of lesser political violence that have gone largely unremarked during the last decade.

It is of course vital not to infringe the civil liberties of far right activists and counter jihad activists unless there is compelling evidence of the kind that might have arisen during Breivik’s long period of terrorist preparation and planning. That said, it is equally vital that governments and law enforcement agencies do not show sensitivity to the civil rights of the far right and the counter jihad movement while disregarding the civil rights of politically active Muslims. From now on there needs to be an even handed counter-terrorism policy in Europe and the US.

Robert Lambert is Lecturer at the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence, University of St Andrews. He is the author of Countering al-Qaeda in London: Police and Muslims in Partnership, Hurst, London in September 2011.

This article was first published at Open Democracy / Open Security


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