Dec 23, 2013

Thoroughly modern minister Naftali Bennett looks east for Israel's future | The Australian

Naftali Bennett views Australia as 'the most pleasant place with which I've ever interacted'....
Naftali Bennett views Australia as 'the most pleasant place with which I've ever interacted'. Picture: Nikki Shorti Source: News Limited
ORIGINALLY cast as a conservative, Naftali Bennett, Israel's young Minister for the Economy, is discarding or destroying shibboleths in a way the country's establishment finds disconcerting but voters love.
He is eagerly "going east" in search of new trade and investment partners instead of focusing on the country's older European and US business roots.
It is in that role that he has been travelling in Australia after visiting Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country. His first two overseas visits were to China and India.
He is also pushing two new groups to participate for the first time in Israel's economy in a significant way: Arab women and the ultra-Orthodox.
Now aged 41, he was born in Israel and, like a succession of political leaders, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, he served in the elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit.
When he was 26, he left the military and co-founded Cyota, an anti-fraud software company that was sold eight years ago for $145 million.
He says: "When you log online to your bank, our software makes sure who you are," with 70 per cent of Western bank transactions incorporating Cyota.
"As a result, I ought really be in the Caribbean with a cocktail in my hand," he says. "But destiny wanted it differently."
He had remained a major in the military reserves and was called back to participate in the second Lebanese war on a "search and destroy" mission behind enemy lines against missile launchers.
"That changed everything, it pulled me back from the hi-tech entrepreneurship that I loved."
His generation had never before experienced "an existential threat", he says: "We sang peace songs in kinder."
But that confrontation with Lebanon caused a convulsion in his thinking, combined with his home situation; he had married and had a child.
He started to ask himself: "Whatever do they want from us?" Then he began to realise, he says, that "the Hezbollah guys didn't want anything, whatever we do, they don't want us in Israel. We had conditioned ourselves, though, that if we wanted something enough it would happen." In 2006 he applied his hands-on style to politics, becoming Netanyahu's chief of staff; then, after a further foray as chief executive of another software pioneer, Soluto, which was sold recently for $130m, he decided to go into politics on his own account.
He took over the leadership of a party, Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home), that had existed for 11 years and was known as a religious organisation. He gave it an indicative new slogan: "Something new is beginning."
In its heyday, decades ago, the party had captured 12 seats in the Knesset, the parliament, but this had dwindled to three in the previous parliament.
Bennett had not been a member but competed "out of nowhere" in primary elections and was chosen as leader. He says his message was: "We don't need a religious party any more. We need to open it up to secular Israelis, we need to restore Jewish identity and strengthen our power in the region. And it worked."
The party attracted a 40 per cent non-religious membership at the election early this year and won 12 seats in the Knesset.
He formed what he calls "a surprising alliance" with another fresh face in Israel's political scene, secular former journalist Yair Lapid, whose new party Yesh Atid (There's a Future) won 19 seats, the second biggest total, delivering him the Finance Ministry.
This started, he says, as a tactical arrangement "and morphed into something more profound".
He says "70 per cent of Israelis agree on 70 per cent of issues", but politicians traditionally obsess about the 30 per cent. Instead, Bennett wants to focus on areas of consensus, including some that "have plagued us for decades".
One such area is "to get the ultra-religious into society, to work and to serve (in the country's defence)". Today, he says, 32 per cent of first-grade pupils at primary schools are ultra-religious.
"That's fine, as long as (the ultra-religious are) willing to work and serve. I've proposed a carrot-and-stick approach, providing a five-year plan to train them."
In the past many have lacked education in Israel's core curriculums, including maths and English. That is changing. "And we are providing incentives to employers to hire them, initially, and providing vocational training." Lapid was more focused on getting them to do military service, while Bennett concentrated on employment.
"We need to do the smart thing at first, not the 'right' thing," Bennett says. "If they work with us, their children will serve with us. I'm willing to be patient and don't want to create resistance."
Another area of priority is to increase the proportion of Arab women in the workforce from the present 27 per cent to about 60 per cent. This involves effort in training, transportation and cultural issues. The Arab men who are Israelis, he says, almost have full employment, in contrast.
He says: "The Russian migrants were the steroids that carried us for almost 20 years, and this is the new wave" - the ultra-religious and Arab women joining the workforce.
There is a degree of prejudice that needs confronting first, he admits, "especially against the Orthodox". But he is confident of "breaking those glass walls".
Bennett also has championed a balanced budget, of $14.5 billion this year. "That was highly unpopular and wholly good."
The government is starting to create competition in monopoly areas, he says, such as the ports, "which were union run".
"The economy is going through huge change. It is just bustling with start-ups, but my thrust is not to call Israel a start-up nation but a lighthouse nation."
The strengths Israel needs to promote, he says, are in technologies around water, agriculture, alternative energy, cyber security and medical devices. "We can do good in these around the world."
In India alone, for instance, Israel has developed a dozen model farms to increase food productivity, where 20,000 farmers are trained every year. On one, two hours' drive from New Delhi, the production of cucumbers has increased from 1kg per square metre a year to 10kg, Bennett says. "We are good at this because we don't have water and we don't have much land."
Israel's ingenuity, its reforms and technologies have pushed its economy along, he says, and this is being reinforced by the discovery of offshore gas, which Woodside is likely to be involved in exploiting.
To leverage Israel's potential, he says, it's necessary to engage more with the fastest growing part of the world: east Asia. The country has about 40 trade offices, which he is starting to divert from western Europe towards Asia, with the Sweden office being replaced by one in Hong Kong and Finland's by one in China.
"We still trade with Europe, of course, but we need to diversify, and it's good to be involved now with places with no history of anti-Semitism, where we are just perceived as who we are, not as what others think we did or didn't do 2000 years ago."
Bennett has done business in Australia before and views this country as "the most pleasant place with which I've ever interacted. If I had to choose one other place after Israel, it would be Australia because people are very direct, honest and frank, and simply nice. You have a dynamic mentality and a down-to-earth approach."
He had a highly positive meeting with Tony Abbott during his visit, he says. And he notes that in four years it will be the centenary of the famous Anzac cavalry charge at Beersheba, now within Israel. Before then, he will be leading a few charges of his own.

Dec 17, 2013

Greens ignore Israel's rights | The Australian

WHEN Norman Finkelstein, an icon of the anti-Israel movement, blasted the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign as a "duplicitous, disingenuous cult", his words were met with a great sense of betrayal among the campaign's adherents. After all, Finkelstein was once revered as a veteran campaigner who, among many other things, called Israel a "satanic state".
Finkelstein had experienced no great awakening. At the centre of his disassociation with the BDS movement, which has hijacked the Palestinian cause, is what he calls a "deliberate ambiguity" on Israel's basic right to exist. In Greens senator Lee Rhiannon, Australia has its own longstanding supporter of the anti-Israel movement. Unfortunately, the leaders of BDS in Australia have yet to heed Finkelstein's advice to be open about their aims and to cease their selective application of international law.
During a typically vitriolic and hateful speech in the Senate earlier this month, Rhiannon urged Australia "to cease military co-operation and trade with Israel ... as a small but significant step". In a new and bizarre line of attack, Rhiannon justifies this call on the basis that Israel perpetuates war and conflict to battle-test its weapons for "public marketing by the Israeli arms industry" as a means of boosting its sale of weapons to countries like Australia.
In her latest allegations, one detects a near pathological aversion to the Jewish state. As one would expect from Rhiannon, nowhere does she recognise that Israel has a very real and genuine need to defend itself. Nor does she entertain the idea that the Israeli army could have any legitimate defence function whatsoever.
To be sure, Israel exists only because it has defended itself from three invasions, two intifada, Iranian proxy campaigns, numerous border incursions, and the constant threat of war from enemies who do not bother to veil their desires to destroy Israel in the misappropriated language of human rights. This is the function of the Israeli army.
While presented as a pacifist's rebuke to militarism, Rhiannon's argument is steeped in double standards. If she opposes militarism in all its forms, why is Israel the only country with which Australia should sever military ties? If indeed her message is one of peace and demilitarisation, one could have expected her to start by calling for the disarming of a state less vulnerable than Israel.
There is also an uncomfortable inconsistency between Rhiannon's assault on Israel's means of defence and her history of support for the Soviet Union, which built and maintained an empire through force and coercion and whose arms exports had a uniquely deleterious impact on the world, not least in the Middle East. In the 1980s, shortly after Rhiannon led solidarity delegations to the Soviet Union, Moscow was responsible for 34 per cent of the world's arms trade, and supplied such states as Libya, Syria and Iraq. This is precisely the sort of hypocrisy to which Finkelstein refers.
While the anti-Israel movement goes to great lengths to demonstrate that its hatred of the Jewish state should not be mistaken for a hatred of the Jewish people, it is deeply troubling that Rhiannon's latest assault casts the Jewish state in a historically dubious and familiar light. The image of the Jew as a war profiteer, conspirator and driven solely by money is steeped in anti-Jewish tradition and it is alarming that such accusations have now been evoked and transferred to the Jewish collective, the state of Israel. Senator Rhiannon and her peers in the anti-Israel movement should recognise that advancing Palestinian rights does not need the denial of Israel's right to exist as a national home for the Jewish people.

Greens ignore Israel's rights | The Australian

WHEN Norman Finkelstein, an icon of the anti-Israel movement, blasted the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign as a "duplicitous, disingenuous cult", his words were met with a great sense of betrayal among the campaign's adherents. After all, Finkelstein was once revered as a veteran campaigner who, among many other things, called Israel a "satanic state".
Finkelstein had experienced no great awakening. At the centre of his disassociation with the BDS movement, which has hijacked the Palestinian cause, is what he calls a "deliberate ambiguity" on Israel's basic right to exist. In Greens senator Lee Rhiannon, Australia has its own longstanding supporter of the anti-Israel movement. Unfortunately, the leaders of BDS in Australia have yet to heed Finkelstein's advice to be open about their aims and to cease their selective application of international law.
During a typically vitriolic and hateful speech in the Senate earlier this month, Rhiannon urged Australia "to cease military co-operation and trade with Israel ... as a small but significant step". In a new and bizarre line of attack, Rhiannon justifies this call on the basis that Israel perpetuates war and conflict to battle-test its weapons for "public marketing by the Israeli arms industry" as a means of boosting its sale of weapons to countries like Australia.
In her latest allegations, one detects a near pathological aversion to the Jewish state. As one would expect from Rhiannon, nowhere does she recognise that Israel has a very real and genuine need to defend itself. Nor does she entertain the idea that the Israeli army could have any legitimate defence function whatsoever.
To be sure, Israel exists only because it has defended itself from three invasions, two intifada, Iranian proxy campaigns, numerous border incursions, and the constant threat of war from enemies who do not bother to veil their desires to destroy Israel in the misappropriated language of human rights. This is the function of the Israeli army.
While presented as a pacifist's rebuke to militarism, Rhiannon's argument is steeped in double standards. If she opposes militarism in all its forms, why is Israel the only country with which Australia should sever military ties? If indeed her message is one of peace and demilitarisation, one could have expected her to start by calling for the disarming of a state less vulnerable than Israel.
There is also an uncomfortable inconsistency between Rhiannon's assault on Israel's means of defence and her history of support for the Soviet Union, which built and maintained an empire through force and coercion and whose arms exports had a uniquely deleterious impact on the world, not least in the Middle East. In the 1980s, shortly after Rhiannon led solidarity delegations to the Soviet Union, Moscow was responsible for 34 per cent of the world's arms trade, and supplied such states as Libya, Syria and Iraq. This is precisely the sort of hypocrisy to which Finkelstein refers.
While the anti-Israel movement goes to great lengths to demonstrate that its hatred of the Jewish state should not be mistaken for a hatred of the Jewish people, it is deeply troubling that Rhiannon's latest assault casts the Jewish state in a historically dubious and familiar light. The image of the Jew as a war profiteer, conspirator and driven solely by money is steeped in anti-Jewish tradition and it is alarming that such accusations have now been evoked and transferred to the Jewish collective, the state of Israel. Senator Rhiannon and her peers in the anti-Israel movement should recognise that advancing Palestinian rights does not need the denial of Israel's right to exist as a national home for the Jewish people.

Dec 15, 2013

Mark Scott must step up and rid ABC of its green hue | The Australian

I'M not into prophecy. However, I will have a stab at predicting the likely outcome of the inaugural editorial audit on ABC program topics. The initiative was announced by ABC chairman Jim Spigelman during his address to the National Press Club on Wednesday. I stand to be corrected, but I predict that the auditor will find that the taxpayer-funded public broadcaster passes the impartiality test on this occasion.
This is not a stitch-up. It's just that the so-called "external" auditor, Andrea Wills - a British journalist who has spent much of her career at the BBC, along with one year at the ABC - has been commissioned to inquire into a nonexistent problem.
According to Spigelman, Wills has been tasked to "assess the impartiality of all the interviews on ABC radio of the then prime minister (Kevin Rudd) and the then leader of the opposition (Tony Abbott) during the recent election campaign".
Just ABC radio - not ABC television or ABC online. And just Rudd and Abbott - not Greens leader Christine Milne or Palmer United Party leader Clive Palmer. This is unnecessary for a couple of reasons. First, ABC journalists go out of their way to be balanced during election campaigns because they know that they are being monitored by ABC management and political parties alike. Second, the ABC problem is not that it is biased as between the Coalition or Labor, but rather that it tends to criticise both major parties from a green-left perspective.
A comprehensive inquiry into the ABC's performance during the 2013 election campaign would need to cover the public broadcaster's treatment of Milne and Greens MP Adam Bandt. Moreover, attention should be given as to how it came to pass that Palmer received such favourable treatment on ABC1's Lateline program.
A reasonable finding would be that the Greens received favourable coverage on the public broadcaster in the three years leading up to the election. Another one would be that ABC journalists are fond of Palmer - partly because he is a populist maverick, but primarily because he is a proclaimed conservative who criticises the Liberal and Nationals parties from the Right. Neither matter is within Wills's terms of reference.
The Australian political leader who expressed most fury at the lack of balance on the public broadcaster was not John Howard. It was Labor's Bob Hawke, who railed against the ABC's reporting of the first Gulf War to drive Saddam Hussein's forces out of Kuwait. Hawke's devastating critique of the ABC in 1991 is documented in Ken Inglis's Whose ABC?. Paul Keating shared Hawke's view at the time that the public broadcaster criticised Labor from the Left. Just as Howard came to the view that the ABC criticised the Coalition from the Left. The Greens don't complain about the ABC. And Palmer seldom fails to declare that ABC presenter Tony Jones is the finest journalist in living memory.
At an address to The Sydney Institute in October 2006, shortly after he was appointed ABC managing director, Mark Scott declared he would act as the organisation's editor-in-chief. He has failed to do this. Now the ABC board has felt the need to commission a British journalist to make an assessment on impartiality that should fall within the remit of its editor-in-chief. Since the ABC chairman and his board regard it as proper to spend taxpayers' money on contracting out inquiries into editorial standards, here are a few substantial issues that might be addressed.
Why is the ABC a Conservative-Free Zone, with not one conservative presenter or producer or editor for any of its main TV or radio or online outlets? Rupert Murdoch's Fox News employs some regular left-liberal commentators on its major programs. But the ABC has no conservatives in similar roles. How come?
What are the ABC's processes for selecting candidates for key positions? How did it occur that, in recent years, the public broadcaster has appointed a bevy of left-of-centre identities. Including Russell Skelton (fact-checking unit), Waleed Aly and Julian Morrow (Radio National Drive), Jonathan Green (Radio National Sunday Extra), Linda Mottram (702), Chip Rolley (The Drum online) and Paul Barry (Media Watch). Were any other candidates seriously considered for such positions and who comprised the selection committee in each case?
Who allowed the ABC, as Spigelman has acknowledged, to focus on such inner-city fashions as gay marriage rather than on such community concerns as electricity prices? How did this occur on Scott's watch?
The ABC chairman told the National Press Club that much of the critique of the "allegedly systematic lack of impartiality" at the ABC turns on just 1 per cent of its programs. This suggests that small cliques are acting in their own interests rather than those of their colleagues and taxpayers. This is a job for management - not external auditors.

Dec 12, 2013

Appointing a BBC figure to judge the ABC's bias is beyond parody

THE ABC is lucky to have Jim Spigelman as its chairman. Distinguished, plausible, generally well-liked, he is the most convincing face the ABC can present.
Yet his defence of the ABC yesterday concerning revelations of Australian intelligence intercepts of Indonesian politicians was woefully unconvincing.
Surely it is almost beyond parody that the ABC intends to prove it is not biased in its news and current affairs by appointing a BBC journalist to conduct an audit.
The BBC? Good grief.
Interestingly, Spigelman did concede that episodes of bias occur in ABC news and current affairs, but he claims the problem is not systemic. That, frankly, is ridiculous. Surely no one seriously contests that the culture across almost all ABC radio and TV programs remotely concerned with politics is centre-left and beyond.
If not, perhaps Spigelman could point to the two hours a night of national radio broadcasts by a centre-right figure to match Phillip Adams. Or he might inform us of the centre-right presenter of Media Watch to match all the centre-left presenters? Or the centre-right equivalent of Jonathan Green and all the others. The question of the ABC's political culture is relevant to the spy story because in justifying the ABC's partnership with left-wing British newspaper The Guardian and its Australian website, and the ABC's decision to publish unredacted intelligence documents on its own news website, the ABC made foolish and offensive arguments.
For example, ABC managing director Mark Scott equated the story to the revelations a few years ago that officials of the AWB allegedly had paid kickbacks to Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq to secure wheat sales. And the ABC's director of news, Kate Torney, characterised the story as being about an "abuse of power" by Australian intelligence agencies.
In a fascinating piece in last Saturday's Weekend Financial Review, Christopher Joye quoted an unnamed but "very senior" Australian defence official as saying: "The ABC continues to report that routine and lawful Australian Signals Directorate operations are a scandal. One of the most significant outcomes of Snowden in Australia might be the delegitimisation of the ABC and a growing consensus to reform the organisation."
Increasingly, the Fairfax newspapers and the ABC are joined at the hip, and personnel cross easily between the two organisations, which both share the same centre-left, green left and sometimes further left attitudes. The Financial Review, under Michael Stutchbury's editorship, is a bit more diverse than the Fairfax norm. Joye has become the Fin's most serious analyst on national security matters, and in several columns was highly critical of the ABC's behaviour in the Indonesian saga. But many of the ABC's defenders at Fairfax, and at the ABC itself, have been not only abusive but dishonest in the way they have sought to misrepresent the arguments of the ABC's critics.
Two Saturdays ago, I wrote a long essay arising out of the ABC's performance in the Indonesian spy matter for the Inquirer section of The Weekend Australian. My argument was straightforward enough but a bit different from those of some other ABC critics.
I very explicitly said I had no criticism of the ABC for publishing stories that contained sensitive national security information. But, I argued, there are responsible and irresponsible ways to do this. I criticised the ABC for forming itself into the broadcast and propaganda arm of the Snowden-Guardian axis. I was also critical of the ABC for declining to redact some of the raw Australian intelligence documents that Australian national security agencies asked it to do. One way to responsibly publish such material is to use the key information but not publish the whole document. I also strongly criticised Scott and Torney for characterising the intelligence material itself as scandalous - the same point that Joye's anonymous Defence official is making.
I particularly argued that such characterisation was not necessary for the ABC management to make its case in favour of publication. This is where I suggested that the obvious ideological bias of the ABC had contributed to its misjudgments, because its pervasive in-house ideology almost automatically sees Western, and specifically Australian, intelligence activities as morally suspect.
What was telling about the response of both the ABC and Fairfax to these arguments was the total failure to engage with them at all, and instead resort to straightforward sneering and abuse, even in pieces ostensibly calling for a better standard of debate.
The next Monday, I published a story about what information future Snowden leaks might contain but did not print any confidential documents and provided the context of the story.
This led to the most childish accusations from the ABC and in Fairfax publications that I was being a hypocrite - criticising the ABC and then doing the same thing myself.
Virginia Trioli and Michael Rowland sneered at me, without engaging my arguments - it's notable how much content-free sneering goes on at the ABC - on morning TV. Jonathan Holmes, writing in The Age, claimed I had not criticised the Americans for allowing a junior figure such as Snowden to have access to such information, nor had I acknowledged that Scott had raised this as one element of public interest in the story. In fact, I had quoted Scott verbatim on that in my original piece. But also in many, many pieces before that, I had made exactly that criticism of the Americans. I don't mind Holmes abusing me - that's fine. But accusing me of not raising issues I've written about at length is either dishonest or lazy.
Laura Tingle in the Fin implied I was peddling a News Corporation line, even though the analytical route I took was similar to that of her colleague Joye, who presumably is not a News Corp stooge. She described my Monday news story about future Snowden leaks as "bizarre" and said I thought it was OK because I am not from "the Left". It's sad to see Laura reduced to this level of infantile and dishonest abuse. The quality of her journalism has declined steadily through the years, although she never displayed any serious interest in national security or foreign affairs. But she apparently felt no need to engage with the arguments I actually made about responsible and irresponsible ways to deal with national security stories. Instead it was enough to engage in generalised abuse. The irony of this in a column allegedly lamenting the poor quality of the national debate is striking.
As her colleague Joye has argued, and as Spigelman's tenuous defence yesterday conceded, there is a real debate to be had about the ABC's handling of this acutely sensitive national security story. But that debate certainly won't be had on the ABC or in most of Fairfax. For that, we are the poorer.

ABC promises audits to address allegations of bias | The Australian

THE ABC will undertake a series of sweeping reviews of its content after chairman Jim Spigelman conceded the public broadcaster needed to address allegations of bias and rebalance the airtime it gave to left-wing issues such as gay marriage, to focus more on mainstream concerns such as electricity pricing.
Saying the ABC needed to endeavour to engage all sections of the community and remain "important to all Australians", Mr Spigelman said he had been concerned since his appointment last year about the frequency of allegations of a lack of impartiality.
While rejecting suggestions of "systematic bias" during an address to the National Press Club, Mr Spigelman said he took his statutory responsibility to ensure the impartiality and accuracy of news and current affairs programs seriously and announced the ABC would conduct a series of "editorial audits" on particular program topics.
Mr Spigelman said there would be four "external" audits each year, conducted by people who were not employed at the ABC. The audits are to be made public.
He also said the ABC board had issued a guidance note on impartiality in July, providing detailed information on how to achieve that objective.
He said programs that attracted complaints about impartiality represented less than 1 per cent of the total program hours broadcast by the ABC.
"The allegations of bias are, I believe, much more often a function of the topics chosen for reporting, than of the content," he said yesterday.
"Journalists -- all of you, not just those at the ABC -- tend to have a social and educational background, perhaps particularly in Canberra, Sydney and Melbourne, that may make them more interested in issues such as, say, gay marriage than they are interested in issues such as, say, electricity prices.
"As a public broadcaster, we must endeavour to engage with those sections of our community who are concerned with issues like electricity prices."
The first audit is being prepared by a former British journalist and producer at the BBC, Andrea Wills, who has one year's experience at the ABC. She will assess the impartiality of all interviews of Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott on ABC radio during this year's election campaign, while a second audit is to consider the treatment of the debate about asylum-seekers.
Mr Spigelman said there were plans for systematic briefings next year for ABC staff on issues of importance to all Australians. He refused to be drawn on whether, as a result of this process, there could be change within the broadcaster or journalists moved from their present positions.
"I think I'll leave you to dream up your own headline," he said.
Mr Spigelman also acknowledged the contribution of The Australian to the national debate, saying its survival was unusual in the print landscape around the world. "We are lucky to have The Australian," he said.
Mr Spigelman provided a staunch defence of the public broadcaster's online presence, rejecting criticisms the competition it created with traditional print media outfits was unfair. It was rather a reflection of the "remorseless imperatives of technology".
The amendment to the ABC's charter enshrining digital media services as a core statutory function was described by Mr Spigelman as "the most significant change to the ABC's charter for 30 years". He warned any move to prevent the ABC from competing online would see it marginalised and decrease in relevance.

Dec 9, 2013

Anti-abuse laws pose no real threat to freedom of speech | The Australian

IT would be difficult to have missed the recent campaign in these pages and elsewhere against section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, which makes conduct unlawful where it is done because of someone's race/ethnicity and is reasonably likely to "offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate" them.
For those who understand the operation of 18C, this campaign has been somewhat disheartening: 18C's opponents have avoided making legitimate criticisms, instead relying on a number of half-truths and exaggerations to put their case forward.
For instance, they have cynically characterised 18C as the "Bolt law" - after the 2011 decision against columnist/commentator Andrew Bolt. This marginalises the 16 years of cases before Eatock v Bolt.
There was, for example, the case against Holocaust denier and anti-Jewish conspiracist Frederick Toben, brought by Jeremy Jones on behalf of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry. The decision went to Jones in 2000, as did the appeals in 2002 and 2003. Another of Jones's suits prevented a woman in Tasmania from distributing material claiming that the Jewish religion promoted pedophilia and was destroying Christian societies through "race-mixing".
Another inconvenient detail that the anti-18C campaign has resolutely ignored is section 18D. This contains a number of freedom of speech defences to 18C; exempting artistic works, conduct for any purpose in the public interest, or a fair comment on any matter in the public interest. Bolt was not exempted because Justice Bromberg found that his conduct had not been done "reasonably and in good faith," but 18D has been employed successfully in several high-profile cases.
For example, there was the case brought in 2002 by Aboriginal-rights activist Robert Bropho against The West Australian newspaper, concerning a cartoon about the repatriation of the head of West Australian Aboriginal leader Yagan from a London museum. The cartoon depicted the event as a junket to England for Aboriginal elders. It was found to breach 18C, but was also found to be exempt under 18D as an "artistic work" for the "genuine purpose in the public interest" of encouraging "public discussion or debate about the return of Yagan's head".
Another misrepresentation of 18C is that it is some kind of serious criminal offence. In reality, 18C does not even create a civil offence. There are no fines and no jail time for breaches, and most successful cases - of the ones which even make it to court - end with no more than a "cease and desist" order. Before going to court, 18C complaints have to go through conciliation at the Australian Human Rights Commission, where the vast majority are either dismissed for lack of merit or resolved. To put things in perspective, of the 192 complaints to the AHRC last year under 18C, six proceedings were filed in court.
Which leads me to perhaps the most common argument against 18C: that because it supposedly punishes conduct for causing "offence" - for mere "hurt feelings" - it is a serious threat to free speech. This argument shows ignorance both of the operation of 18C and of Australian law more broadly. For one thing, the word "offend" has been narrowed by courts to refer only to "profound and serious effects, not ... mere slights." Secondly, 18C is far from the only law against causing offence in certain circumstances.
When 18C was written, the words "offend, humiliate or intimidate" were lifted from the federal sexual harassment laws. Similarly, state sexual harassment laws criminalise conduct performed in front of someone, without their permission, which is "offensive to sexual modesty". Meanwhile, common law breach of the peace laws have banned publicly engaging in conduct "calculated to wound the feelings" for centuries, and their modern incarnation in NSW makes it an offence to conduct yourself "in an offensive manner" or to "use offensive language in or near ... a public place".
Unlike 18C, those laws do criminalise causing offence - and carry heavy fines and prison terms.
Most importantly, 18C does not make it unlawful to merely say something that might be construed as racist and hurt someone's feelings. What is unlawful is doing something "because of" the race/ethnicity of a person that is reasonably likely to offend them. The issue is not that anyone's feelings are hurt; it's that someone is targeted for harassment because they happen to be of a certain ethnicity.
For example, the Toowoomba Athletic Oval was sued in 2001 for naming a stand after local rugby league hero ES "Nigger" Brown. This did not breach 18C as the stand had not been named that way because of anyone's race - Brown was of Anglo descent and nobody could remember how he had earned the nickname.
If people genuinely think it should be legal for Australians to harass others on the basis of race, then they are welcome to make that argument. What's troubling about the anti-18C campaign is its dishonesty.
The provision is made out to be an offence when it is not. The freedom of speech defences are ignored. It is purported to be a unique law against causing offence, when it is actually modelled on centuries-old breach of the peace laws. One controversial decision is focused on to the exclusion of almost 20 years of positive outcomes.
But then, being honest about 18C makes it harder to spin the provision as a threat to free speech, and nobody wants to openly defend racial harassment. Do they?
Daniel Meyerowitz-Katz is a Policy Analyst at the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council.

Dec 5, 2013

Is Python really supplanting R for data work? | Computerworld Blogs

After years of chortling at those who could get worked up enough to launch flame wars over Windows vs. Mac vs. Linux or iOS vs. Android, I seem to be engaged in one of my own: Python vs. R.

Except this one isn't quite the same, since we're not arguing over which is better for data analysis (I've got no idea, since I know little Python beyond "Hello, world") but which is more popular. And for that claim, sorry, I think some data is required.

It started with a piece headlined Python Displacing R As The Programming Language For Data Science. Now, if you're not familiar with R, one of the most appealing things about it is its large community and thousands of add-on packages making it easier to do tasks ranging from analyzing your Twitter feed to creating interactive graphics. If R is going to be "displaced" for data work, meaning the community is likely to dwindle, that's a pretty serious charge.

So I went to read the article, expecting to see some comparative data, and instead saw an opinion piece. Boiled down, here's the premise: "Python is general purpose and comparatively easy to learn whereas R remains a somewhat complex programming environment to master. In a world increasingly dependent on data and starved for data scientists, 'easy' wins."

Prompting my somewhat inflammatory tweet:

.@urbandata @DashingD3js Oh, the irony: Not one piece of data to justify claim that Python is displacing R *for data science* @mjasay

— Sharon Machlis (@sharon000) November 26, 2013
To his credit, author Matt Asay responded, although I was less impressed with the actual answer:

@sharon000 @urbandata @DashingD3js actually, there's plenty. Had you followed the links you would have seen some.

— Matt Asay (@mjasay) November 26, 2013
Oooookay, no need to actually prove the claim in the headline within the text of the article itself, as long as you link your sources. We're no longer just readers; we're now part of the research process itself, expected to collect information from primary sources ourselves and help the writer bolster his premise. Very well, off to click I went.

The first link is another of his own articles, this from PyCon, which also claims "Python is fast becoming the Big Data language of choice for the enterprise." The data proving this? 2,500 people attended the Python conference (no comparisons to attendance at conferences for other languages), Python job growth listings are rising faster than several other languages (that's overall job growth and not data-science-specific listings), and a $3 million DARPA investment in a company helping to improve Python's data processing and visualization capabilities. (Of course, DARPA has invested millions more on other computing projects; that by itself is an anecdote, not data).

There are several more links to articles about R being hard to learn, Python's a great language and it's better to do all your work in one tool than have to use several specialized ones. There's even a link to an IDG News Service story right here on Computerworld that points to the usefulness of Python for big data work.

Yes, from all I've read about and heard of Python, it's a popular language and very useful for data work. But that's not the same thing as displacing an alternative. iOS 7 is a great platform for mobile devices and very easy to use, but that doesn't mean it's displaced Android, does it?

In fact, even after following links in the article, I didn't find a single actual data point that tells me whether or not Python's increasing general popularity is a) specifically for data science or b) at R's expense.

In the Twitter burst that followed my initial comment, a few tried to come up with actual data points. R guru Hadley Wickham posted some on GitHub, including graphs of questions on the programming Q&A site Stackoverflow for the two languages, numbers of GitHub repositories and queries on Google (although that's a tough one to quantify, given the difficulty of searching on Google for "R"). His data show that interest in both languages is rising on both Stackoverlow and GitHub. While this can't parse out how much of Python's growth relates to data science, it does make the premise that Python's growth is at R's expense somewhat questionable.

The most relevant data presented on Twitter came from RedMonk co-founder Steve O'Grady, who pointed to the language poll on KDnuggets, a site specifically for data mining and analysis. That showed 61% of respondents using R this year vs. 53% in 2012; while 39% used Python this year vs. 36% in 2012. In addition, " people who use R are about 13% more likely to use Python than overall population," according to the survey.

Are KDnuggets readers who answered the poll a representative sample of the data science community as a whole? I'm not sure, but this is one of the best data points I've seen as to the relative popularity of the languages for data work. And it sure doesn't show Python displacing R.

So yes, I'll agree that many people think R is hard. (Many people also think data science is hard, but that doesn't seem to be slowing the field.) I'll also agree that Python is an elegant and popular language useful for data work. I've got nothing against Python; if I had the time, I'd be interested in learning it myself. But it's still a big leap from "R is hard and I like Python" to "Python is displacing R." And as any good data scientist knows, the burden is on the researcher who makes a claim to prove it, not on his or her readers to conduct research in order to find it false.

See more from the Data Avenger series.


Sharon Machlis is online managing editor at Computerworld. You can follow her on Twitter @sharon000, on Google+ and on Facebook.

Nov 29, 2013

Ignoring reform has too high a cost | The Australian

A FEW weeks ago, I gave a speech to the Committee for Economic Development of Australia entitled Working with Government to Drive Economic Growth and a Thriving Business Sector. It lamented the costly long-run consequences of the former government's policies and the mindless destruction of Australia's international competitiveness that ensued. Predictably, it drew a lot of criticism from supporters of the former Labor government and other free lunchers.
Fairfax journalists were prominent among the critics, with ad hominems and fabrications substituting for intellectual rigour. One referred to the speech as a "flashback to another era". Too right it was. It proposed policy prescriptions that would return Australia to a sustainable growth path, a path from which we departed after the election of the Rudd-Gillard governments. It was a flashback to the less regulated Howard era, when Australia was internationally competitive, when policy settings allowed us to capitalise on favourable global economic conditions and when gross domestic product per person grew faster, on average, than the OECD, raising Australia's GDP per person from the bottom third of OECD countries in the early 1990s to the top third in 2007. It was an era that bequeathed the Rudd government no net debt and a surplus of $20 billion.
Contrast this with the legacy inherited six years later by the Abbott government: federal deficits, which according to the Grattan Institute will average $60bn a year in today's terms, for a decade; and gross debt that is likely to peak at about $440bn. Instead of being internationally competitive, we have slipped, on the kindest measure, from 15th globally in 2009-10 to 21st in 2012-13. Today, that other era seems like paradise lost.
Much critical commentary was directed to my advocacy for lower wages.
This was of course an invention designed to create an image of the hard-hearted businessman cutting workers' rights.
What I did say was that Australian wages, before compulsory superannuation levies, workers' compensation, and other rigidities, are out of line with those in the rest of the world. Our minimum wage is more than 50 per cent higher than in Europe, Canada, Britain and New Zealand, and more than double the US. Clearly, something has to give. But over time. That is inarguable. Australia's relative labour costs will fall, through increased labour substitution, unemployment, currency devaluation, wage growth elsewhere or a combination.
When we add workplace costs to Australia's energy prices which, according to the Energy Users Association, are very near the highest in the world and set to reach the highest, it is unsurprising that we are slipping in the global competitiveness stakes. We clearly cannot afford both.
According to my critics, the solution to our budgetary and competition woes is not the reining in of government spending, or the cutting of red and green tape, let alone the repeal of expensive, inefficient, renewable energy policies, it is simply the devaluation of the currency, an improvement in productivity, and an incerase in taxes for mining companies. Plus, of course, taxing the rich.
A lower exchange rate has merit. However, whether it is achieved through market forces or Reserve Bank action, a devaluation, while improving competitiveness, is not costless.
Imported goods will go up in price and interest rates will rise. Many of the immediate benefits can be diminished through the build-up of domestic cost pressures. It is even possible Canada and Brazil would retaliate. Suffice to say, a weaker Australian dollar will assist, but it is not the panacea that advocates would have us believe. 
Neither is improving productivity. While it should be pursued relentlessly, the increase in productivity required to bridge the long-run average growth deficit is higher than we have ever achieved. Moreover, an ageing population and falling workforce participation make lifting productivity more difficult to achieve. Alone, it cannot fix our current predicament. 
And, tempting though it may be for some, with mining investment falling away and with declining terms of trade offsetting increasing export volumes, now is not the time to add to mining costs through higher taxes.
The truth is, there are no silver bullets. Not even soaking the rich. The problem is too big. The solution can come only from an orderly, broad-based and sequenced combination of policies, all of which are focused on making Australia internationally competitive again.
Yet, strangely, there seems to be little appreciation of the mountain we all have to climb. Certainly the opposition, sections of the media and many academics seem blissfully unaware of it, or, if they are aware, they refuse to acknowledge it. 
It is foolish for the opposition and its followers to keep up the pretence that the previous tenants left the house in top condition. As time goes by, the more hollow this proposition will appear.
However, the practical effect is to frustrate the urgent and necessary repair work the government must carry out. For example, the rejection of the carbon tax repeal bill may frustrate the government, but the economy is the real loser.
It is time for the unvarnished facts to be put on the table. If sacrifices are to be shared it is vital that we all understand why.
The mid-year economic and fiscal outlook will be a good starting point, followed later by the findings of the National Commission of Audit. These will be important reference points for all to see and should encourage voters to lend their support to government initiatives.
The quicker this happens, the faster confidence, international competitiveness and growth will be restored. That is as certain as the chicken is in the egg.
Maurice Newman is the chairman of the Prime Minister's Business Advisory Council.

Beijing in an aggressive mood | The Australian

CHINA'S highly provocative imposition of a vast new "air defence identification zone" over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea significantly ratchets up already overheated tensions in the region.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop is right to leave Beijing in do doubt about Australia's deep concern over a move that is both ill-timed and ill-judged. Chinese officialdom disingenuously avers otherwise, but in making a move that will require all aircraft entering the zone to submit flight plans or face unspecified "defensive emergency measures", Beijing has embarked on a belligerent strategy aimed at asserting its reach and power in the region and aggressively escalating its standoff with Japan over control of the islands and airspace that have been administered by Tokyo for more than 100 years.
Given that Japanese aircraft regularly patrol the area and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made it plain that he will defy Beijing's restrictions, the possibility of conflict over ownership of the tiny islands has escalated sharply and it is not without significance that the Chinese navy has deployed its only aircraft carrier towards the South China Sea while a US aircraft carrier is joining Japanese warships for naval exercises in the area.
To reinforce its unequivocal support for Japan, the US has also flown two giant B-52 bombers unhindered through the airspace now claimed by China. The symbolism of this should not be lost on Beijing since, as much as its move in declaring the identification zone poses a direct challenge to Tokyo, it is also a major test of the Obama administration's much-vaunted strategic pivot to our region. The US is clearly not prepared to submit to what its Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel has described as "a destabilising attempt to alter the status quo in the region" and is committed to fulfil its treaty obligations to defend Japan if attacked. That includes the Senkakus. China would be foolish to ignore these warnings.
In taking action that so comprehensively contradicts all its previous assertions that it wants a peaceful resolution of its dispute over the Senkakus, China has already gone too far. It is in nobody's interests to see the world's second- and third-largest economies in confrontation, and if Beijing seriously believes it has right on its side it should be prepared to submit its claims to international arbitration, not create circumstances in which a clash between the People's Liberation Army and patrolling Japanese forces in the Senkakus becomes inevitable, with potentially far-reaching consequences, including the US being drawn into any conflict. If Beijing has a case - and it may well have, given that it claims to be able to trace its ownership of the islands back to the 1300s before, it says, Japan annexed them in a war in 1895 - then it should set about proving that in international law, not provoking the aggression now being seen.
Beijing is doing itself no good and its belligerence will only serve to further reinforce perceptions of China as a bully in the host of other territorial disputes it has with countries in the region. It is imperative Washington makes good on the promise held out by the US pivot to unequivocally project its own power as a counter-weight to China and assure countries faced with intimidation and coercion by Beijing that it will stand by them.
Beijing must not be allowed to throw its weight around and US Vice-President Joe Biden, on his much-anticipated visit to China, must leave Chinese leaders in no doubt that aggression is not the best course for them to follow in any territorial dispute anywhere. A similar task awaits Ms Bishop on what will be her first visit to China since the Abbott government took office, and Beijing officialdom's rebuke to her over her allegedly "irresponsible remarks" in expressing Australia's legitimate concern are misplaced and misjudged. They come from a friendly country and should be seen as such. China's best interests would be served by realising that it will lose what support it has in the international community if it continues with its aggressive stance in territorial disputes, potentially with dire consequences. That is what Ms Bishop will need to impress on her hosts in Beijing. Confrontation is not the answer. Diplomacy and negotiation is.

Nov 27, 2013

A modest proposal on how to deal with traitors in modern times

MARK Scott should resign. When the managing director of the ABC chose to publish information criminally obtained by Edward Snowden about Australia's signals intelligence operations in Indonesia, he also chose to undermine Australia's relationship with our most important neighbour.
He chose to fuel tensions and nationalist sentiments in a fledgling democracy. He also chose to undermine an immigration policy aimed at preventing deaths at sea.
These consequences were entirely foreseeable. Despite Scott's flimsy arguments to the contrary, in the end, the ABC - and Scott - were willing to risk Australia's national interest for no discernible public interest.
The call for Scott to resign is not made lightly. Moreover, I am not the only former ABC board member who believes the managing director of the ABC ought to go or be relieved of his duties for failing to lead the ABC as a responsible editor-in-chief.
When Scott applied for, and was given, the job as MD, he was touted as an effective editor-in-chief, something the national broadcaster had lacked under earlier managing directors.
There are now serious questions about Scott's prudence as an editor-in-chief - whether or not it was his decision to publish.
If the decision were his, he got it badly wrong. By deciding to team up with the left-leaning Guardian Australia, the ABC effectively aided and abetted an online newspaper with minimal reach so the spying allegations would receive maximum reach using the resources of the taxpayer-funded giant.
If the decision to team up with the Guardian to get out in front and air the spying allegations did not come to Scott, it should have. A failure to bring such a serious matter to its managing director would suggest the ABC is run by the staff, not by management.
To be sure, the story about Australia's intelligence operations would have broken and caused damage without the ABC joining up with the Guardian. But that's not the point. The ABC willingly chose to go out in front - and to draw the ABC into a debate the national broadcaster didn't need to be drawn into.
Importantly, the ABC did not even have a genuine scoop or exclusive access to this story. If it had, Scott might have had to agonise over whether to be first to go public. But by acting as a free public megaphone for a commercial outfit, the ABC plainly made a political rather than an editorial decision.
The timing of the leak was also a highly political matter. The Guardian has had this information since May. Its decision not to publish the information before the election when it would have harmed Kevin Rudd, but to sit on it until after the election, when it was designed to damage Tony Abbott, is something the ABC must have considered. Its decision to go ahead showed a blatant political preference.
The seriousness of the ABC's decision to publish criminally obtained information that involved such profoundly damaging and entirely foreseeable risks also raises questions about the ABC board.
Did Scott raise the issue with the board, to whom he is responsible? If not, why not? What about ABC chairman Jim Spigelman? Was he included in the decision? If not, why not? If yes, did he consider the ramifications for the public interest?
What is Spigelman's view about Scott's response to questions in senate estimates last week that it was in the public interest to reveal information about Australian intelligence gathering in Indonesia even though he knew that it would "cause some difficulties with the Australian-Indonesian relationship in the short term". Or did Spigelman do what former ABC chairmen lacking spine have too often done - let the MD and therefore the staff - run the show without prudent board oversight?
So far, the only public comment Spigelman has made has been a letter to The Australian about the "considerable personal distress" this newspaper caused to his executive assistant by publishing an incorrect salary figure. Compared with the breach of national security perpetrated by the ABC, his focus on a matter of staff welfare is a disappointing demonstration of where the chairman's priorities lie. A responsible board must surely have concerns about Scott's stewardship of the ABC on this matter. Scott is appointed by and subject to removal by the board.
As section 13 of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Act sets out, the managing director holds office subject to terms and conditions determined by the board. The reckless publication of criminally obtained information with the predictable and escalating consequences now unfolding make his position untenable. In short, the ABC board needs to look at its responsibilities here - and its culpability in this matter.
As a member of the ABC board for five years between 2005 and 2010, I can attest to the fact that it has a disappointing history of being ineffective. I can attest to the fact that information that ought to have been provided to the board was not.
And I can attest to the fact that, unlike commercial boards that work together, the ABC board is too often a numbers game. If you don't have the board numbers then the status quo at the ABC becomes untouchable. Moreover, if the chairman's main aim is to be loved by staff, then the MD is untouchable.
Instead of providing genuine oversight and counsel to management, the board gets bogged down drafting policies, codes of conduct and other fine-sounding documents. It's a management driven make-work gig for board members to make them feel important. It justifies them jumping on planes, travelling business class, checking into nice hotels and turning up for a fine lunch at Ultimo - all at taxpayer expense. Meanwhile the focus is taken off what really matters - the output of the ABC. The output this past week by the ABC has let taxpayers down. Badly. While questions have been raised about the curious timing of this dump of information, consider what we do know about the ABC. The orthodoxy at the ABC has long been to oppose strong border policy and offshore processing as lacking compassion and human decency. You only need to sit on the Q&A panel - as I have done on many occasions - to witness the strength and persistence of that orthodoxy. Never mind that these policies will stop deaths at sea as they did from the time of the Tampa standoff in 2001 until Rudd started to dismantle the immigration policy in 2008.
Just as Abbott's boat policy appeared to deliver results with a 75 per cent decline in arrivals in the past eight weeks, the ABC's handiwork as an activist media organisation has seen Indonesia suspend co-operation.
Just as 300 terrorists are about to be released from Indonesian prisons in the next 12 months - including some involved in bomb attacks against Australians in Jakarta and Bali between 2002 and 2009 - intelligence co-operation between the two countries has been derailed by the spying revelations. Is that in the public interest? Remember, it was joint co-operation between Indonesia and Australia that led to the arrests of the Bali bombers and the dismantling of the Jemaah Islamiah terror network.
In senate estimates last week, Scott likened the ABC's disclosure of Snowden's revelations about Australian intelligence operations in Indonesia to the Australian Wheat Board scandal.
Scott could not be more wrong.
The AWB scandal involved criminal kickbacks to the Saddam Hussein regime. By contrast, as Michael Bohm, the opinion page editor of The Moscow Times, wrote back in August when Russians were hyperventilating about news that the US gathers intelligence in Russia, spying is a sovereign right. All responsible countries spy on friends and foes alike.
Snowden is not a whistleblower. "The type of spying on foreigners that Snowden revealed is not in violation of any international law, treaty or convention," wrote Bohm. The only criminal activity here was Snowden stealing information from the National Security Agency.
Scott also said there would be short-term consequences for Australia; the revelations would "cause some difficulties". Not only was this a reckless understatement, the truth is that Scott cannot know where this will end.
Will the latest reports about spying further inflame hatred of Australia and Westerners? Will terrorists retaliate? Will Australia's ability to use intelligence gathered in Indonesia to identify terrorists and likely terrorist attacks be hampered? Will a critical immigration policy collapse? That is the wish of left-wing Abbott-haters.
Moreover, the ABC's decision has brought into question the propriety of the ABC receiving $223 million to provide Australia with what Scott himself calls "soft diplomacy" in the Asia-Pacific through the government-funded Australia Network.
As another former board member, Keith Windschuttle, tells The Australian, "by publicising illegally obtained information that patently works against Australian interests in the region, the ABC appears to have abrogated its claim to be acting in the spirit of its original submission".
Scott appears to consider it appropriate to take these risks, using taxpayer dollars to indulge his staff in the publication of criminally obtained information.
All week, the ABC has pursued the line that Abbott ought to apologise for actions of the former PM, Rudd. Where is the apology from the ABC for its reckless, irresponsible actions? How can the managing director of the ABC claim with a straight face that the leak of ABC salaries was a serious matter that should not have happened and yet in the same week, publish illegally obtained leaks about Australia's intelligence operations overseas when the known consequences were far more serious to an entire nation?
These are grave questions not only for the ABC board but also for all Australians whose taxes fund the national broadcaster. This dark stain on the professionalism and ethics of the ABC, the managing director and the board will only serve to raise questions about the appropriateness of taxpayers continuing to fund - to the tune of $1.2 billion annually - an organisation that is reckless in its duties as a responsible media organisation.
As former foreign minister Alexander Downer said on Sky News's Australian Agenda on Sunday, you may be free to publish, but you also have an obligation to act responsibly. The ABC, under Scott, has failed to do that. He should go.
Janet Albrechtsen was on the ABC board from 2005 to 2010. Mark Scott was appointed during her tenure in July 2006