Greens’ population policy no better than the others

Bob Brown didn’t manage to get in the leaders’ debate, to the annoyance of his supporters. In a way, that’s a shame.
Sure, the Greens treat human society as a wholly-owned subsidiary of the environment. But they do try to present clear policy where Labor and the Coalition just waffle.
They’re definitely against the internet filter (although admittedly they chose the person responsible for the filter, Clive Hamilton, to run as a candidate). They’re definitely for climate change policy (although admittedly they voted with the Coalition against the emissions trading scheme).
A fourth body on the stage could have made the debate a little less of a sixty minute slogan slog.
Nevertheless, on the big issue of the campaign so far – immigration and population growth – Bob Brown offers nothing but equivocation and confused messages.
First: equivocation.
In response to the intergenerational report last year which famously projected Australia would have nearly 15 million more people in 2050, Brown called for … wait for it … an inquiry. A review. Another report.
Speaking in March, Brown asked, “How they think we’re going to handle 35 million, I don’t know, but if they think we can, let’s see the plan. It’s just really saying let us have the knowledge base that responsible policy making should come out of.”
The Greens are obviously learning the politics of policy from the big kids. Kevin Rudd would be proud.
Then confusion. In her Twitter feed on Sunday night, Sarah Hanson-Young, the Greens senator from South Australia, tried to claim “Compassion is key to any discussion of population growth”.
Certainly, the party’s approach to asylum seekers is clear cut.
The Greens want to increase Australia’s refugee intake, which is good. Their asylum seekers policy is one carefully refined after years of activism and involvement with refugee protests, and driven by dissatisfaction on the left with the major parties.
Yet the party is as rife with contradiction as any of the majors they despise: the Greens also want to cut back other immigration.
And they’re clearer than the ALP or Coalition about who the bad guys are in the population debate – skilled migrants.
Oh well, the Greens were never going to get much of the business vote.
Hanson-Young has argued the skilled migration program could have some “fat” trimmed from it. (Masterchef has made food metaphors cool.)
Indeed, the best comment this week came from a regular Masterchef guest, Neil Perry, responding on Twitter to the opposition’s similar promise to cut migration: “great can’t get enough people to work now!! Guess I should think about closing restaurants not opening them!”
Perry’s comment applies as readily to the Greens’ proposed immigration cut as it does to the Coalition’s.
Our current immigration program only partly alleviates business needs.
There is a genuine demand in the Australian economy for skilled and semi-skilled workers right now. No amount of high-handed rhetoric about the need to train local workers will change that fact.
And the lucky migrants who get into Australia benefit from our high living standards, stable rule of law, and liberal democracy.
So how is stopping people finding a new life in Australia, as the Greens would like to do, in any way compassionate?
Let’s be clear. If you are a refugee fleeing persecution, then a Green government will embrace you. But if you are fleeing something as banal and commonplace as poverty, economic hardship, low wages, a lack of opportunity or jobs, or if you’re just looking for a better life for you and your family – then the door to Australia is closed.
The Greens are torn. On the one side, they have supporters who value Australia’s role accepting more refugees and providing opportunity for migrants.
But on the other side, they have supporters who see people as the ultimate environmental problem. Each Australian has a relatively high carbon footprint. So, for some environmentalists, the goal should be to make sure there are as few Australians as possible.
That means keeping foreigners out. Poor people are better for the environment. They can’t afford gas guzzling cars, or always-on-standby plasma televisions, or gaudy McMansions with heating and cooling systems.
Anyway, that’s the theory. Many people holding this view say we should increase foreign aid, but they are convinced the effective path out of poverty – immigration – should be blocked.
Bob Brown has to negotiate the terrain between these two views. It’s clearly uncomfortable. (Refugees settling in Australia have growing carbon footprints as well, but that’s best not spoken about.)
Brown’s hedging means the Greens are no better on population than the Coalition and the ALP. No party wants to embrace the high immigration which has been the fuel of the Australian economy for two centuries.

Spending cuts in the obvious places

The government spends a lot of money on a lot of things.

Not all of it wisely. It’s easy to be careless when you’re spending other people’s cash.

So credit where credit’s due: in the unlikely event there is an Abbott government in Canberra at the end of next month, the Opposition has proposed some genuine cuts to the federal budget. Tuesday morning they released another list of “savings” – some $1.2 billion worth – which they claim would help get the budget back into surplus.

Some of them are so stultifyingly obvious it’s amazing nobody has committed to scrapping them yet.

Retooling for Climate Change was announced by a fresh looking Rudd government all the way back in 2008. The government pays selected small businesses to upgrade to more environmentally friendly machinery.

In the two years the program has run, it has been taken up by just 65 businesses.

So it probably hasn’t made a substantial impact on global carbon emissions levels.

The Green Building Fund, a program to upgrade buildings in a green-ish manner, is even more expensive, and just as futile. The Opposition says scrapping it will save $400 million over the next few years.

The United Nations Security Council bid was another of Kevin Rudd’s attempts to aggrandise himself on the world stage. Dropping the bid, and keeping the $5.7 million the Coalition claims it would have cost, should be a no-brainer.

Every budget cut is controversial. Even this one. After Abbott announced his hostility to the UN bid, the Australian foreign policy establishment was decrying that doing abandoning this would undermine our “prestige”.

We’ve spent a lot of money in the past trying to enhance our “prestige” in the world. Remember the Sydney Olympics?

Indeed, if Tony Abbott is in the mood to kill some sacred cows he might consider abandoning Australia’s bid for the World Cup. We’ve given $45.6 million to Football Federation Australia to manage the bid so far. The cost to the Australian economy will be extraordinary if we win: PricewaterhouseCoopers has estimated hosting the Cup will cost at least $2.9 billion.

Supporters of the World Cup claim we’ll recoup the money through tourism and other miscellaneous sources. But a mega event which pays back is an extraordinarily rare one, despite the fevered dreams of their advocates. Let’s cut our losses while we still can.

Community cabinets, which Abbott also wants to eliminate, were always bit of a joke.

Sure, they flattered those communities which had a turn meeting senior politicians and complaining to their face. But if the Labor Party wants to run focus groups, it should pay for them itself.

And Rudd’s community cabinets were absurd when you realise that his actual cabinet was being marginalised. Senior ministers couldn’t get a few minutes of Rudd’s time to discuss major policy – so spending an hour with the PM at a community cabinet meeting was probably as exciting for his colleagues as it was for the dutiful citizenry.

The Opposition claims that, when added to the savings already announced before and after the May budget this year, it adds up to $23.8 billion of cuts. The federal government spends around $350 billion per year, but you have to start somewhere, I guess.

Nevertheless, we should dwell on the net effect of these savings. Both the Government and the Coalition believe that they will bring the budget to surplus by the 2012-13 financial year.

And projections of what the budget will look like in 2013 are, well, projections. Economic circumstances change. (After all, recall that as the global financial crisis was beginning to hit, the Rudd-Swan-Gillard-Tanner team were still saying our economy was doing too well, and pushing up interest rates.) And political circumstances change; governments decide they have new spending priorities.

So there is reason to be optimistic about these proposed cuts.

The Opposition could go a hell of a lot further. Here’s another idea for them to mull over: if a program appears on the AusIndustry website – as Retooling for Climate Change does – that should qualify it for immediately abolition. The site lists 53 separate government programs: all of which funnel money to favoured industries and lucky applicants who have mastered the art of filling out paperwork.

Of course, when the Opposition claims that it is dedicated to reducing “Labor waste” they are being too disingenuous by half. The Howard government was no stranger to waste. Their Regional Partnerships Program defined for a generation what pork-barrelling looks like in Australia. When Abbott claims “this reckless spending must stop” he is just redeploying Kevin Rudd’s powerful critique of Howard.

And Abbott is putting new pressure on the budget too: yesterday he announced more tax rebates on education.

No party has a good record on cutting spending. But every promise to do so counts.

Climate change: healthy debate not a health debate

Want the earth to be cooler? Unleash the psychologists.

At least, that’s the argument presented by one of the keynote speakers at the 2010 International Congress of Applied Psychology, being held in Melbourne this week.

According to Robert Gifford, a Professor of Psychology and Environmental Studies at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, the profession needs to help scientists and policymakers overcome the psychological barriers to action on climate change – things like the public’s limited understanding of the dangers of global warming, ideological reluctance, and mistrust of government.

He’s not alone: it’s a developing area of study. The American Psychological Association has a Task Force on the Interface Between Psychology and Global Climate Change. In a report last year, it too found psychologists should try to overcome our psychological barriers to saving the planet.

Of course, all this assumes that having governments take aggressive action on climate change as soon as possible is inherently desirable.

And if you don’t think so, well, you have psychological problems. Or, at least, we as a society do.

In other words, if we think the costs of climate change policies could be greater than the benefits, if we think there are better uses for the money governments want to spend on the environment, if some of us don’t want to make the lifestyle changes necessary to cut carbon emissions by 80 per cent, then we need psychological treatment.

Case closed.

But there is serious debate to be had about climate change. Debate about the best response to the changing climate and the degree to which we are responsible for that change. Debate about how we can adapt to a warmer or colder environment. Debate about whether Australia should bother trying to “lead the world” if the world isn’t interested in following.

Instead of tackling those questions, many climate activists would prefer to treat the existence of public uncertainty about the origin, costs and consequences of climate change as not just wrong, but corrupt, immoral, and, now, unhealthy.

This attitude has the stale whiff of authoritarianism. Not to the degree that dictatorships have used psychology as a tool of political power, jailing dissidents in mental institutions, sure. But it is distinctly authoritarian to respond to a political disagreement with a medical diagnosis.

The Australian Psychological Society claims the profession has a “special responsibility to be proactively involved in fostering more ecologically sensitive and sustainable behaviours and lifestyles”. This seems a little outside its brief.

Yet it accords with the trendy view that lawmakers should team up with psychologists to manipulate our decisions. People apparently need a little help from social engineers to ensure they make the “best” choices about their personal diet, finances, and lifestyle.

Thus the huge range of personal values and opinions held by individuals can be treated as if they are deviant in some way, and need professional and legal treatment.

No-one is disputing the electorate has misguided views about many public policy questions.

In his 2007 book The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies, Bryan Caplan documented the four big economic biases – views held by the general public but rejected by economists who have spent years or decades studying them.

People tend to underestimate the value of labour-saving practices. They overlook the benefits of free trade. They believe the economy is always in decline, and they undervalue the social benefits of the voluntary interaction in the marketplace.

These beliefs account for much of the harmful demagoguery which surrounds economic debate.

Yet neither the Australian Psychological Society nor the American Psychological Association has a section on their website dedicated to the psychological barriers to sound economic policy making, as they do with climate change. Nor do their conferences focus on diagnosing the impediments to international support for lower tariffs.

Instead we all rightly treat economic policy as a legitimate area for discussion and disagreement. Climate change policy needs to be approached with the same open attitude.

The way the debate over climate change has developed has encouraged this sort of public policy dogmatism.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has been promoted as the last word on climate.

The IPCC process is a bold attempt by a small number of experts to distil an enormous amount of scholarship into a single document, with enough coherence for politicians to act upon.

So the IPCC’s reports are not just dispassionate reviews of the scientific literature. They are riddled with economic assumptions, political judgements, and ethical and moral assessments.

That the general public is sceptical the IPCC has reached scholarly perfection – to question some of its judgments – is not an indication we all have psychological issues. It’s healthy debate.

Chris Berg is a research fellow with the Institute of Public Affairs and editor of the IPA Review. You can follow Chris Berg on Twitter.

The Great Disappointment

For progressives, if 2007-08 was the financial year of hope and change, then 2009-10 must have been the financial year of disappointment.
The relentless disappointments of Kevin Rudd have been documented well enough, I think.
Now Julia Gillard, less than a fortnight into her new job, is condemning “political correctness” and planning to harden up the government’s asylum seeker policy.
It’s gotten so bad even Phillip Adams has quit the Labor Party. Adams was an ALP member for half a century. Can you imagine how many disappointments he has lived through? And still sent in his membership renewal?
The Great Disappointment is a worldwide phenomenon.
In the United Kingdom, Gordon Brown was supposed to be a principled revitalisation of the British Labour government – less polished, but more progressive. That didn’t last long.
There’s Barack Obama, whose ascent to the White House throne was accompanied by the global equivalent of a Hillsong service: non-sexual ecstasy by crowds of swaying thousands.
Yet in retrospect, it doesn’t seem like that was really “the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal”, as Obama manically put it in a post-campaign address.
(What did Obama mean saying the planet would begin to heal? Geologists have discovered the African continent is slowly ripping itself in two, and will eventually form a new ocean. Chalk that up as another Obama failure.)
Not only has Obama failed to shut down the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, he’s deliberately affirmed many of the war on terror policies – indefinite detention, warrantless wiretaps, renditions, the assassination of American civilians – which he damned during the 2008 presidential campaign. The United States is still in Iraq, and it’s ramping up in Afghanistan.
Then there is the disappointment of international action on climate change. Spare a thought for the 6,172,820 frustrated citizens of Hopenhagen. They discovered that the awesome power of concentrated motherhood statements could not convince the Chinese economy to power down.
My point is not to revisit the last few years.
And it’s not to ask why this generation of leaders have failed to live up to the imaginings of their supporters.
It’s to ask why those supporters had such imaginings in the first place.
Many extremely intelligent, politically-mainstream people took Obama’s “change” rhetoric deeply seriously, were charmed rather than repulsed when Rudd said “he was here to help”, and imagined that Copenhagen could be a kind of international Kumbaya, where heads of governments would set aside the demands of their own domestic politics and think only of humanity.
Turns out Obama’s “change” was referring just to a change of government. Rudd was talking about helping himself. And Copenhagen was nothing more than a conference full of politicians doing politician things.
So a little more cynicism wouldn’t have gone astray.
Writing in The Monthly before the 2007 Australian election, Robert Manne prophesied if Rudd won, “Australia will become a different and, in my view, a better and more generous country.”
That was a bizarrely optimistic assessment of Rudd’s potential. Yet it was one shared – perhaps not so boisterously – by much of the intellectual left who had been traumatised by years of conservative government.
It’s too easy to blame the Great Disappointment on the fact that Kevin Rudd was a crazy person. Or that Barack Obama can’t stand up to the Tea Party movement.
Instead, blame the system. Politics – and the people who chose to play politics for a living – don’t deserve the ludicrous amount of faith they were given by much of the left.
Liberals and conservatives are used to disappointments.
George W Bush and John Howard were extremely high taxing, high regulating supporters of big government. If you had hoped otherwise, you’d have had a glum decade.
But more than that, the idea politicians are inherently disappointing is built into liberal and conservative political philosophy.
Politics is not a form of self-expression, or an opportunity for catharsis. Politics is a game of winners and losers, a means by which special interest groups seek to get themselves maximum private benefit with other people’s money. It’s grubby.
Sure, not all politicians are venal and self-serving, but enough of them are. Even the most honourable political leader has to make compromises which tear their principles apart.
After all, the pursuit of power isn’t an ennobling one. The American journalist Henry Adams called politics “medieval”, a description I quite like.
Incidentally, that’s why liberals and many conservatives believe politics kept in a small, discrete box, as far away from society and as far away from the economy is possible.
Optimism might be a nice way to live your personal life. But in politics, it just leads to disappointment.

Chasing the xenophobic vote

Tony Abbott must be feeling a little like Victorian opposition leader Ted Baillieu this week.

For the last 12 months, Baillieu has been trying to identify issues where the Coalition can make headway against John Brumby’s government. More cops, abolishing suspended sentences, an anti-corruption commission – those sorts of things.

The Victorian government has responded by ostentatiously adopting those policies as its own.

Tony Abbott made population a key plank of the Liberal Party Federal Council this weekend, claiming an Abbott government would link population growth to infrastructure investment, and saying he would make sure “immigration does not out-strip environmental and economic sustainability.” (It’s in his “Action Contract”, just above his signature, so you know he means it.)

So Julia Gillard’s announcement that “Australia should not hurtle down the track towards a big population” may have taken a little wind out of Abbott’s sails.

Like many other things in Australian politics these days, one reason we are now debating population is because Kevin Rudd got overexcited. For many people, Rudd’s noble but politically inept claim last October that he believed in big Australia and “makes no apology for that” was a helpful reminder that Australia’s politicians rarely take the train to work.

With his October speech, Rudd managed to take personal responsibility for decades of state government failure to invest in transport infrastructure, and personal responsibility for the refusal of those governments to release more land for housing.

Remember when Rudd was described as a political genius?

Abbott capitalised on this when he won the Liberal Party leadership. Rudd had to back away from defending population growth.

But now the primary reason the two parties are talking population is because of asylum seekers. Under Kevin Rudd, the Labor Party was losing votes on all sides.

On the left, Rudd’s ban on refugee claims from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka was pushing voters to the Greens. On the right, the ALP was losing votes every time a new boat full of refugees arrived.

Getting tough on “population” pleases both these camps.

Green voters seem to love the word “sustainable”. It’s like tomato sauce: everything tastes better with sustainable on it.

Having a sustainable population implies asylum seekers can come to Australia, but no-one else. You may flee your third world country to Australia if there’s a war on, but not if you’re starving. That, after all, would be bad for the environment.

Yet on Twitter yesterday, the now Minister for Sustainable Population Tony Burke said “This is the first time I’ve heard any commentators describe talking about environmental sustainability as a ‘lurch to the right’.” He is being stunningly disingenuous.

A quarter of Australians think asylum seekers make up 25 per cent or more of Australia’s total migration intake, according to an Essential Report poll earlier this month. The real figure is less than one per cent.

Those Australians must believe every new boat person is another seat on the train they miss out on. Or another bidder at suburban house auctions. Refugees apparently have deep pockets.

But the Labor government has been losing votes to the Greens, so directly going after asylum seekers, Liberal-style, would only add to the government’s electoral problems.

So population has to be the proxy. Just because it’s badged as “sustainable” population, doesn’t mean the government is only thinking about plants and water and clean air and koalas. Gillard isn’t talking about salinity levels in the Murray Darling Basin when she talks about making sure Australia gets the “right kind of migrants”.

Of course, the Coalition lacks even that subtlety.

In his Federal Council speech on Sunday, Tony Abbott claimed population growth should be tamed because it is putting pressure on infrastructure. But at the same time, he claims his paid parental leave scheme will be “good for our economy because it will increase population.”

In other words: grow local.

(Tony Burke might notice the opposition also uses the phrase “sustainable population”, although no doubt he would be comfortable casting the Coalition’s policy as right-leaning.)

Obviously, in population, Tony Abbott found a powerful message which resonates with voters the ALP would like to retain. Gillard used to work as John Brumby’s chief of staff. Like her former boss, she has no reluctance simply copying her opponent’s policies.

Abbott and Gillard can dress it up all they want. They can talk about infrastructure and the environment, about the hard decisions, about their deep personal desire for migrants to find new lives in Australia, and about how their own parents brought them to this country.

But it’s all pretty transparent. With population, both the Labor government and the opposition are now trying to chase the xenophobic vote.

The pursuit of economic growth

The financial crisis must be over.

Whenever the economy crashes, wise men and women say we need governments to manage the financial world for everybody’s benefit. Capitalism, left by its lonesome, can’t make everybody rich.

But when the economy is growing, those sages complain that being rich is no good anyway.

Take one of the keynote speakers for this year’s Alfred Deakin lecture series. Tim Jackson, a professor of sustainable development and author of Prosperity without Growth?, claims that the era of economic growth is over. Jackson writes: “Questioning growth is deemed to be the act of lunatics, idealists and revolutionaries. But question it we must.”

Sounds brave.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy wants nations to abandon their “fetishism” for growing their gross domestic product (perhaps easy to say if you’re the president of a country whose economy has had a sluggish few decades). And luminaries like Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz also believe we have to drop growth and focus on well-being.

This message has its appeal. There is only so much coal, copper, tin, iron and uranium buried in the ground. We’re richer, but we seem more stressed. We have more choices, but they’re complicated and confusing choices. We have better hospitals, but we have fatter stomachs too. And then there’s the environment.

Nevertheless, the growth sceptics couldn’t be more wrong.

We can mock all the trivial inventions and gadgets which make up modern life. (Although I believe the invention of the flat-bottomed taco shell is a worthwhile innovation.) But economic growth is about more than iPads and tooth-whitening solutions.

Growing richer means getting healthier. People in wealthy countries live longer – this graph, which compares GDP per capita with life expectancy demonstrates that clearly enough.

In the first world, only steadily-increasing personal wealth will make expensive health technologies affordable. In the third world, basic public health requires strong economies. To eradicate malaria you have to drain swamps. It’s expensive.

Then the big one: a wealthy country is a clean country. That’s counterintuitive, sure. But the same policy settings which fuel economic growth – property rights, individual liberty, and the rule of law – are a powerful incentive to protect the environment. The drive for wealth involves the drive for competitive efficiency. There is nothing less efficient than waste and pollution.

Electricity generators in the first world are cleaner than those in the third. Priuses cost money.

And it is only desire for profit which leads entrepreneurs to develop and commercialise green technology. If we powered down to a motionless “stable” economy, as growth sceptics believe we should, we’d be discarding our biggest incentive to invent green things.

Yes, many natural resources are limited, but our capacity to innovate – given the incentive to profit – is unlimited. The economist Julian Simon wrote a book called the Ultimate Resource. He was referring to humanity’s ability to adapt to changes and invent new ways of doing things.

We’ve all heard the trite quip the Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stone. But we’ve been abandoning finite resources in more recent times. We used to light our homes with whale oil and heat our homes with Europe’s ancient forests. Now trees are mostly farmed in plantations and whales are only used for scientific purposes (I’m sure).

In Prosperity without Growth? Jackson writes economic growth has “failed the two billion people who still live on less than $2 a day”. This is tragic. But it’s still an improvement on past performance. The developing world might be poor, but it’s wealthier than it was. And healthier. With good governance, stable legal systems, and secure property rights regimes, there is no reason to believe the poorest parts of Africa and Asia couldn’t be future boom economies.

Those countries will need that economic growth if they are to adapt to natural and unnatural climate change.

It is fantasy to believe through careful planning and clever coordination we could get the inestimable benefits of economic growth without having the growth itself.

And it’s a weird sort of hubris to imagine we are the generation who will see the multi-millennia project of economic growth suddenly stop.

We want growth because we want our children to live better than we do – to be richer, with all the health, education, and lifestyle benefits wealth can bring. We want the poorest members of our society to be richer than we are now. We want the developing world to be infinitely richer. We want the Bangladeshis of tomorrow to be twice as rich as the Australians of today.

To pursue economic growth is to believe progress – better living standards, better health, and a better environment – is possible.

Chris Berg is a research fellow with the Institute of Public Affairs and editor of the IPA Review. You can follow Chris Berg on Twitter.

Capping trade

Last week’s Freedom Flotilla incident has highlighted an old truth. Trade – or, in this case, the forced closure of trade – is an ineffective foreign policy tool.

The blockade of Gaza by Egypt and Israel is actually a massive trade and travel embargo.

Humanitarian supplies can be legally brought into Gaza, but also much more than that: frozen salmon and low-fat yoghurt can come in too. Coriander, margarine and A4 paper cannot. Wood for doors or window frames, yes. Wood for construction, no. The list seems completely arbitrary. Hillary Clinton had to personally intervene to have dried pasta allowed in.

That’s because Egypt and Israel don’t just want to force the end of weapons smuggling. They want the trade embargo to undermine Hamas’ support in Gaza. One Egyptian politician said “Egypt will not accept the establishment of an Islamic emirate along [its] eastern border.”

Gaza under Hamas is a rogue state.

That’s a regional problem, not just an Israeli one.

Since coming to power, Hamas has led brutal attacks on opponents and civil society organisations. In the days after the Freedom Flotilla, Hamas security forces raided six NGOs in Gaza. Thuggish political violence and repression is an essential part of Hamas’ program.

And despite the blockade, with Hamas acting as an Iranian proxy, they seem to be having no problem getting weapons.

That shouldn’t come as a surprise. There have been few occasions when trade embargos have succeeded. Embargos rarely hurt those in power, who have the money and the political means to acquire things others do not.

Fifty years of economic sanctions have utterly failed to budge the Castro regime in Cuba.

And worse, they’ve given the Cuban dictatorship an easy excuse for its own failures. Directing domestic attention towards the American trade embargo is simpler than dealing with the deep economic problems caused by a half a century of socialism.

The same holds true for North Korea, where isolation from the world economy supports rather than challenges the regime. The state ideology of Juche – socialist autarky – is how the regime embraces this forced seclusion, and uses it to cement its control over the population. And, as in Cuba, the responsibility for North Korean poverty is levelled solely at the West.

Restrictions on trade with Iraq failed to topple Saddam Hussein. They were some of the toughest sanctions in history. Yet before 2003, the only major destabilisation of the Iraq government came from the bombing in 1998.

Trade embargoes have failed in Burma, Iran, Zimbabwe, and Syria.

A 2007 study of 204 separate economic sanctions over the last century found they were successful in achieving regime change in only 31 per cent of cases. Their success at disrupting military adventures was successful in just 19 per cent.

And they can have some terrible unintended consequences.

Certainly, humanitarian goods are getting into Gaza. But simply sustaining the population isn’t the main game.

The trade embargo stops Gazans from integrating themselves into the world economy. Their domestic economy is busted. It will remain busted as long as they are unable to trade. Imports to Gaza may be strictly limited, but exports from Gaza are effectively banned.

The Palestinian Trade Centre claims that, as a consequence, the number of private sector firms has shrunk at least 70%. In 2005, around 25,000 people were employed in Gaza’s clothing industry. That number is now around 230. Unemployment in Gaza is nearing 50 per cent. 80 per cent of the population relies on aid. Recent Iraqi history has taught us sudden mass unemployment is not a harbinger of peace.

There is little Israel and Egypt could do to divert hardline Hamas fighters from their path of violence. But the blockade could convince many Gazans there is no prospect for mutually beneficial cooperation with its neighbours – the sort of cooperation that open trade encourages.

The only peaceful future of the Middle East will be one with trade and economic cooperation.

History tells us the blockade is unlikely to budge their rule. Worse, it could legitimise it, in the minds of some Gazans.

That’s why what happened on the Freedom Flotilla has been such a massive win for Hamas. The blockade hides the extraordinary repressiveness of the ruling regime. Last week in Gaza there was a 2,000 person demonstration against new taxes being levied on smuggled commodities by Hamas. But the Freedom Flotilla turned the attention right back on Israel, inside and outside the Gaza strip.

And of course, Egypt’s role in the blockade has been popularly ignored.

Nations have an absolute right to defend themselves. Egypt and Israel are unquestionably justified in inspecting for weapons entering Gaza, and taking action against aggression. But rather than destabilising Hamas, the economic blockade might be only encouraging the violence.

Seeking a political crisis

“Stop the boats, we must” stated Tony Abbott last week, announcing the Coalition’s intention to bring back temporary protection visas for asylum seekers.

Must we? It’s not clear why. This has all the hallmarks of a concocted political crisis.

Certainly, 4,893 asylum seekers arrived by boat in 2009-10, a significant increase on the previous year’s 1,000 arrivals. According to the federal opposition that’s the most ever, higher than it was before the Howard government introduced temporary protection visas nearly a decade ago.

Sounds like a lot, unless you recall the federal opposition has also been claiming Australia currently has total net migration of 300,000 people per year. Or recall the fact that there are 50,000 people already in the country who have over-stayed their visas – as they are not seeking asylum, this is true ‘illegal immigration’. If we really want to secure our borders, we’ll have to eliminate tourist visas first.

It’s also worth noting the large number of boat arrivals to Australia in 2009-10 is not actually the largest influx in any 12-month period ever. If we measure by calendar years, rather than by financial years, 5,516 people arrived in 2001.

Accounting trickery, sure. But comparing calendar years is no more arbitrary than comparing financial years. Neither has our refugee program as a whole gotten out of control.

Australia’s humanitarian intake has remained stable for the last twenty years, teetering around 13,000 humanitarian visas granted per annum. Our intake has been much higher in the past. Under the Fraser government, this figure was well over 20,000.

We could easily take more. Expanding our immigration program is hands-down the best thing we could do to help the developing world. Migrants send money and skills back home. Allowing more people to move freely across national borders to work would be overwhelmingly more beneficial than anything we could do with foreign aid.

Anyway, the number of asylum seekers who come by boat is a tiny proportion of the masses of people who come through Australia every year. So while asylum seekers are a controversial political football, they are not a serious policy problem.

You wouldn’t know that from all the bellicose political rhetoric. After one boat tragically exploded in April last year, Kevin Rudd claimed “People smugglers are engaged in the world’s most evil trade and they should all rot in jail because they represent the absolute scum of the earth”.

The Prime Minister is becoming known for his hyperbole. But he misses the serious point. We mustn’t pretend trying to stop people from fleeing persecution is being compassionate.

Refugees are active participants in the choice to risk the long journey to Australia. Their decision to take the risk comes from their wish to escape and build a better life.

The dreadful risks of taking a boat to Australia are an indication of the desperation of the passengers, not of the depravity of those who they pay to help them. After all, the big disincentive to take the dangerous journey is the dangerous journey itself. Not the bureaucratic hurdles which the government throws in the asylum seekers’ way.

More than eighty per cent of boat arrivals to Australia this year have come from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka. Both countries have been in strife, and are nearby. It’s not just us: since 2008 the rest of the world has experienced substantial surges in Afghani and Sri Lankan refugees as well.

The opposition’s proposed reintroduction of temporary protection visas would do very little to alter the calculated risk asylum seekers make when they hop on the boats. But it could do considerable harm once those refugees arrive.

A source of much conservative and right-of-centre unease with refugee programs (and immigration programs in general) is that they can be a drain on the welfare system. They fear migrants often fail to integrate fully into the Australian economy; that they will not make productive members of society.

If anything, temporary protection visas would make this worse.

Refugees with temporary status are substantially less likely to find stable work than refugees with permanent status. Employers are understandably reluctant to hire and train someone whose residency is insecure.

And migrants left out of the workforce struggle to participate in Australian society. Indeed, as they may be unable to gain permanent residency once their temporary status has expired, refugees have less of an incentive to try. Learning English, for example, is a substantial investment. Refugees are less likely to make the investment if their residency could be revoked.

This should be as much a concern about Australia’s social cohesion as it is about the wellbeing of individual refugees. After all, we want refugees to join the Australian community. Making refugee status temporary – telling them their stay here is only provisional, or even transitory – does nothing but undermine their integration.

Defence’s Spending Debacle

If you still have faith in the natural efficiency of government, there’s a quick way to eliminate that.

Read the first dozen pages of the Australian National Auditor Office’s report into the Defence Department’s Lightweight Torpedo Replacement Project, which was released last week.

In the mid-1990s, Defence decided it wanted a new anti-submarine torpedo that could be deployed on frigates, helicopters, and patrol aircraft. Phase 1 of this acquisition started in March 1998.

Twelve years and two months later, $391 million has been spent and there’s still no torpedo. The whole thing would be substantially over budget if they hadn’t eliminated three of the five platforms the torpedo was originally supposed to be deployed on.

In fact, the auditor general has now pointed out the torpedo will never do what the Defence Department wanted it to do.

The audit catalogues the project’s decade long history of poor planning, mismanagement, buck-passing, and careless decision-making. The Defence Department thought they were buying an off-the-shelf piece of equipment, already being used by other countries, but it took them “several years” to realise that was “not the case.”

Not a resounding success, then.

Certainly, some big government projects don’t function as advertised. The Rudd government has worked hard to remind us of that truism.

But the list of Defence projects that are over-budget and mishandled is pretty impressive.

The $16 billion F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is well on its way to becoming as iconic a debacle as the Collins class submarine. The Seasprite helicopter was cancelled in 2008, because it was already running seven years late, and we’d already spent $1 billion on it.

The Wedgetail airborne early warning program is four years overdue. The Tiger Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter: also four years overdue, and mired in contractual disputes.

The upgrade of the M113 armoured personnel carriers are three years overdue. The Auditor General found the M113 upgrade had been characterised by “poor project management practices; ineffective project planning; inadequately defined project objectives; and technical problems”.

Indeed, “poor” is a word commonly encountered in Defence audit reports. A report published in March covering explosives procurement documented poor budgeting practices, poor lines of responsibility, poor contract management, and poor project administration.

Even a new program designed to cut down on waste – a logistics information system to track Defence assets – has blown its budget by 20 per cent and delayed three years.

It’s almost as if Defence is constitutionally incapable of buying new stuff without being overcharged.

A McKinsey report earlier this year found Australia’s military spending was among the least efficient in the world. The consultancy compared the amount of money we spend with the amount of equipment we procure. In a list of 33 major countries, we tied with the United States for worst at getting value for our Defence dollar.

Part of the problem is politics drives procurement. Politicians want to buy Australian-made.

The McKinsey report noted those countries which tried to procure their equipment domestically tended to get worse value for money. That’s obvious here: the Auditor General found a desire to support local industry meant the torpedo program was pushed ahead despite critical difficulties with the project.

You’d have thought the government would have learnt from the Collins class submarine fiasco, which was built in Australia to everyone’s great regret. But the government intends to build the next generation of submarines in Adelaide too. In fact, two-thirds of the $100 billion expected to be spent on defence acquisitions over the next decade will be spent in Australia.

That’s because politicians don’t like to miss any opportunity to claim they’re “creating jobs”.

The bigger the problem is the easier it is to spend other people’s money irresponsibly. Reckless spending is common across all areas of government. But it’s especially common in Defence, where decisions about what to buy are based on guesstimates of the strategic environment 10 or 20 years down the track.

Yet once procurement programs are started, they’re hard to stop. One military insider told The Australian earlier this year, “to question the F-35 inside the Defence Department is a dangerous career move”.

The Rudd government intends to clean up military procurement.

But don’t hold your breath. Ever since the Turana project – a pilotless target aircraft for the Navy – was embarrassingly cancelled in 1979 there have been frequent reviews into reforming Defence procurement processes. They all find endemic mismanagement, and they all recommend greater accountability.

Defence procurements are highly technical, often secretive, and far removed from the eye of the taxpayer. But the torpedo program makes the home insulation scheme look like the ideal model of policy development.

It would be delusionally optimistic to believe this is the last indictment of a Defence program we’ll see.

Should terror suspects be protected by politics?

In Dr Strangelove, the crazed General Jack D Ripper claims ‘war is too important to be left to the politicians’.

So, it seems, is terrorism.

It’s been just over one week since a Nissan Pathfinder caught fire in Times Square. The press has focused on the modest drama of stopping the departing Emirates flight carrying the alleged terrorist Faisal Shahzad, as he tried to leave the country.

But still,it seems he was pretty easy to catch.

The Pathfinder was taken to a forensic lab where investigators quickly traced its provenance – it had been sold on Craigslist, two weeks before the incident. The sale was made in $100 bills in a supermarket car park.

But the seller had the buyer’s mobile number. And, with a sketch artist, was able to draw a picture of buyer’s face. Better: the buyer had driven himself to pick up the Nissan, and left his black IsuzuRodeo in the car park.

With the registration of the Isuzu, investigators now had Faisal Shahzad’s home address. They didn’t even have to break in. The key to his apartment was in the Nissan’s ignition.

Shahzad was in custody 53 hours after the bomb was left in Times Square.

The tale of Shahzad’s speedy arrest makes him look less like a formidable jihadist with Pakistani terror camp training, and more like an incompetent, failed criminal.

But it’s worth dwelling on the particulars of how Shahzad was identified and arrested because the legal system largely worked.

What little effort Shahzad made to cover his tracks was easily side-stepped. He took two days to try to leave the US. The US government says Shahzad claims to have learnt bomb-making from the best, but his bomb didn’t work.

And the legal case against Shahzad seems to have been made even easier because he started chatting to the FBI, apparently giving them “valuable intelligence and evidence”.

Seems too simple, doesn’t it? That’s because the politicians haven’t become involved yet.

Take the question of whether Shahzad should have been informed of his legal rights at his arrest. After investigators confirmed there were no other attacks imminent, he was. John McCain claimed doing so was a mistake. And the ranking Republican on the Homeland Security Committee, Peter King, strongly agreed, adding: “I know he’s an American citizen but still…”.

Joe Lieberman upped the ante by proposing to give the government power to remove anybody’s American citizenship if they are merely suspected of being a terrorist. In their view, the rights we afford criminals are getting in the way of winning the war on terror. But the sorts of legal changes they recommend could very well lose it.

Terrorism is against the law. It’s against a lot of laws. And even in a post-Guantanamo world, terrorism trials are conducted in the shadow of centuries of legal precedent, an adversarial court system, and extensive avenues of defence and appeal.

Those bombastic tough-on-terror politicians – if they got their way – could easily undermine terror prosecutions. Because it’s not a question of whether terrorists deserve legal rights. It’s that ignoring those rights allows terrorists to avoid justice.

As David Frum has pointed out, if Lieberman’s proposed citizenship laws were in effect, the US would be on its way “to court right now to litigate the issue whether the Times Square bomber’s bombing plot indicated an intent to relinquish his nationality. Only after taking that issue through trial and appeal (maybe multiple appeals) could we get to work questioning and punishing him”.

It’s happened before.

Ali Saleh Mohamed Kahlah al-Marri was arrested shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks, accused by the government of being an al-Qaeda sleeper agent, and taking orders directly from Osama bin Laden.

With all the charges against him, al-Marri potentially faced 143 years in prison if convicted in a civilian court, according to the Cato Institute’s David Rittgers. But the Bush administration was eager to show that American counter-terrorist efforts were a ‘war’ in America as much as Afghanistan. It moved him out of the civilian court system and into military custody.

As a result, after years of legal wrangling and a Supreme Court case, he was convicted in October 2009 on just one count of material support for terrorism. He got eight years.

If you want to punish terrorists to the fullest extent of the law possible, that’s an awful outcome.

Like Australia, the United States has a civilian legal system which has evolved from centuries of English legal precedent. It’s handled mass murderers and politically-motivated misdeeds for hundreds of years.

Terrorists believe they are freedom fighters; captured terrorists believe they are political prisoners. Let’s give them the disrespect they deserve and treat them like common criminals