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Australia, we need to have an urgent chat about surveillance technology and the race for marginal votes

We live in a time where often it’s only a handful of seats that can win an election, instead of election campaigns focusing on ideas and policies, the focus is now on influencing voters to win marginal seats. Data mining and surveillance tools that were created for war zones before being picked up by the advertising industry, are now in use against civilians. Privacy laws and regulations haven’t kept up with the pace of technology, and too many people are willing to exploit these loopholes. Business models that involve data mining like Cambridge Analytica and i360 can’t exist without tech giants such as Google, Facebook, and Palantir.

Everyone is scraping, selling and analysing our data it’s now about influencing our behaviour, predicting what we will do next. The co-founder of Palantir, Peter Thiel, wasn’t joking when he named his company after the Lord of The Rings stone that is ‘far seeing’. Technocrats take advantage of the fact that most of us aren’t technologically minded, especially the politicians that they pitch their technology too. This is the main-game now to try to see into the future with predictive technology, including predicting crime. In this article I will provide background about the tech giants and how they adopt each others technologies, how data is being used against marginal voters with the debut of i360 software in Australia, and what looms on the horizon. Firstly we will take a look at  Palantir and its ties and similarities to Facebook.       

What is Palantir and how is it connected to Facebook?

Peter Thiel co-founded PayPal and sold it to eBay in 2002. He took advantage of a post-9/11 world and created a company that used PayPal’s fraud-recognition software to stop terrorist attacks. This company became Palantir and was founded in 2003. Thiel provided the seed money for Facebook in 2004 and joined Facebook’s board, he is still on the board today. Mark Zuckerberg was only 19-years old at the time, Thiel soon became a mentor and friend. Zuckerberg bragged at the time about how he was able to collect data willingly from people, he called them “dumb f***s”.             

Initially the only investor of Palantir was Thiel but in 2005 the CIA’s venture arm In-Q-Tel, also became an investor. The CIA was the only customer of Palantir for the next three-years. They had the best engineers working for the company as they tested and evaluated their data mining software to predict terror attacks. Word soon got around and before long they were getting contracts from intelligence agencies, military units, and eventually police departments. Police departments in America were interested in using the technology for its ability to analyse big data to predict crime.  

Predictive crime technology goes mainstream, including in Australia

Palantir secretly began using the population of New Orleans to test its predictive crime technology in 2012 by offering its services for free. In return they were given free data relating to public records, court filings, licenses, addresses, phone numbers, social media, and non-criminal data to train its software to forecast crime. Palantir’s prediction model also used an intelligence technique called social network analysis (SNA), which looks for connections between people, places, cars, weapons, addresses, social media posts and any data stored in databases.

This information is analysed and used to predict if people are most likely to be the victim of a crime, or to commit a crime based on their connection to known victims or criminals. It’s frighteningly close to the TV series ‘Person of Interest’, there are so many things that can go wrong here:

  • A culture in law enforcement of guilt by association.
  • The profiling of citizens being analysed by an algorithm with no human oversight.
  • Privacy issues.

There is no clear evidence of predictive technology reducing crime in New Orleans. Despite this it led to more contracts for Palantir, including foreign ones and with the Australian government. There are twenty-four patents relating to Palantir in Australia, the latest tender was signed last year, it’s worth $7.5 million and ends in June 2021. The Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC) and different partner agencies use Palantir’s Fusion software, ACICs different partner agencies include: the Australian Federal Police, the Australian Tax Office, the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, and the Department of Human Services.

Home Affairs Department becomes an intelligence hub    

Two bills were introduced in February this year, the Identity-Matching Services Bill and the Australian Passports Amendment Bill. The first bill authorises the Minister for Home Affairs, Peter Dutton, and his department to match photos against identities of citizens in various agencies without a warrant. Media reports about it say that the government was basing this bill on an FBI model, but where did they get their model from? Palantir.

Home Affairs is now a huge data collection hub akin to Palantir and it will continue to grow as it collects information, each time a user makes a request for their identity-matching services. For example, say a bank supplies CCTV footage and data with a request, the footage and all of the data associated with the request will be hoovered up into the hub. The reasons for Home Affairs using this information are very broad, and include: criminal intelligence gathering and profiling, community safety (an example is a person acting suspiciously in a crowded, public space), road safety, and the policing of activist communities and protests. The second bill allows Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop to direct the automation of sharing passport data for the purposes of national security, meaning no human oversight, just algorithms talking to each other.

Palantir patents ‘crime forecasting’ tech    

Palantir is renowned for its secrecy, the only way to tease out what they’re up to is to keep tabs on their patents. The most recent patent that was granted was in December last year and it relates to ‘crime forecasting’ technology, to help police “to know when and where crimes are most likely to occur in the future.” Another patent pending involves the data mining and analysis of billions and trillions, or petabytes, of records. For context one petabyte equates to 58,292 movies or 13.3 years of HDTV content. These could be bank transaction logs, call data records, computer network access logs, email messages of corporations or other high-volume data. 

The last patent pending involves household behaviour predictive software that analyses past behaviour in an effort to predict future behaviour. Examples detailed in the patent include obtaining data about household incomes, the number of cars belonging to a household, and your household bills. There are similarities here with Facebook’s ‘Loyalty Prediction’ tool and their ‘Household Audience’ tool. These tools allow you to target entire families in the household.  This week the Intercept obtained a confidential document that claims that Facebook is promoting their ‘Loyalty Prediction’ ad service tool. It’s meant to assist advertisers chasing users that are on the verge of disengaging with brands. The Facebook business model has always been about data collection but now it’s moving into territory where it is feeding data into a machine learning program called ‘FBLearner Flow’. Algorithms predicting behaviour aren’t foolproof and because companies are paying for these predictions, there’s a financial incentive to make sure that the predictions are correct. There is concern that Facebook could engineer results.  

Facebook has been experimenting on its users for years, their mood experiment in 2014 proved that it could change people’s emotions dependent on the content shown to them. It would be tempting to employ this method to change people’s minds about disengaging with brands. GQ reported that Google has an application for a patent in the same realm regarding an algorithm to determine a user’s mood from a “plurality of data sources”; or big data. This technology is basically social engineering and it could be used to sway voters. Next we will take a quick look at the Cambridge Analytica debacle and then on to the debut of i360 software in the South Australian election.    

The Cambridge Analytica debacle wasn’t really a data breach  

In 2014 when Cambridge Analytica data mined Facebook there was a way that anyone could do it using one of Facebook’s own tools. Facebook had a ‘Reverse search tool’ which enabled users to search for people on Facebook just by using a phone number or email address to find their profile. The feature was ‘opt out’ for users and could only be turned off in the privacy settings. You could potentially feed the tool a list of phone numbers or email addresses that could have been taken from data breaches, online leaks, or even electoral rolls. It was only this month after being warned for years by developers of the potential for using the tool to data mine, that they finally shut it down.

When Facebook learned about what Alexsandr Kogan was doing for Cambridge Analytica in 2015 they actually paid him to do consultancy work. He was also asked to explain his technique for Cambridge Analytica, and to give talks to Facebook staff about behavioural psychology. Another method that app developers like Kogan used to scrape Facebook data, is by writing code inside their apps to capture your data. It was a Palantir employee that gave Cambridge Analytica the idea to use an app to data mine Facebook. Many are extremely sceptical of Zuckerberg telling Congress recently that he is unaware of what Palantir does and if Palantir itself has ever scraped data from Facebook.  

i360 makes it debut for the South Australian election

The South Australian (SA) Liberals lost the election in 2014 because they didn’t win enough seats to form government. The leader of the party, Steven Marshall, and the SA Liberal State director Sascha Meldrum, looked to America for solutions. In 2016 they purchased a product license for i360 software, it costs around $25,000 per month. They worked together with i360 to customise the software to include Australia’s compulsory and preferential voting system. They began using i360 in 2017 giving them a headstart in targeting marginal seats for the March 2018 election. Dozens of staff and volunteers including Victorian opposition leader Matthew Guy, had a dry run using i360 in the field at the SA election. i360 has been credited for the SA win. The Victorian Liberals have been using it for a while, Queensland is about to sign up and the NSW Liberals, and the Federal government are thinking about it.

What is i360?

i360 was created by Michael Palmer in 2009 with a team of nine data scientists with PhDs behind him. It started out as a database to help Republican’s catch up with Obama’s successful use of data during his 2008 campaign. In 2011 the Koch brothers helped out by merging i360 with their non-profit organisation, Freedom Partners. Millions and millions have been pumped into it by themselves and their rich, conservative allies ever since. Making it non-profit means that they can hide who the donors are as well as the money trail. i360 is no longer just a database, they offer a suite of cutting edge tools, including analysis and predictive technology for political campaigning. i360 is primarily funded by the Koch brothers. If you haven’t heard of the Koch brothers, they’re billionaires that fly under the political radar and have made a fossil fuel, fortune. Their company Koch Industries, owns and operates a massive network of oil and gas pipelines, and they make a wide range of products that include: chemicals, jet fuel, plastics, and synthetic fertilisers. They have been funding climate change denialism, to protect their interests through foundations, institutes and front groups for years including an institute in Australia, the Institute of Public Affairs. More in this link and this link, if you’d like to learn more about that. Next we will look at how i360 works, their technology will sound a little familiar.

How does i360 work?

i360 has a multi-pronged approach that involves apps, technology, analytics, predictive analysis, as well as data science, digital marketing and advertising. Over the years they’ve amassed trillions of data points on hundreds of millions of Americans. They use thousands of unique pieces of data and combine data, analytics and predictive modelling for election campaigning. Facebook and Google Adwords work alongside i360, and are their featured digital partners.

i360 predictive technology

Advanced predictive modeling enables i360 software to test the effectiveness of thousands of political ads before using them. They use segment models that go above and beyond demographics, they include issues such as whether you want to ‘cut immigration numbers’ or are in favour of ‘raising the minimum wage’. These models can also help them to predict which issue that people care about the most. Knowing these details about people enables them to tailor their ads specifically for you, they personalise the style and tone of the ad, even the aesthetics and colours. These models get updated with new data and refreshed every night. This business model has much in common with Cambridge Analytica.

i360 tracks your online movements  

According to the i360 website they have partnered with a number of ‘mobile ID matching’ services instead of using traditional cookies to track your online movements. Cookies are a small piece of data sent from website’s that you browse back to your computer to help identify you so that they can advertise to you. This works for desktop and laptop computers but isn’t good for tracking your movements on mobile devices and for tracking your activities within apps that you visit. They claim to use ‘mobile device IDs’ which are used to identify you via your mobile devices and the apps that you visit. And then there is ‘direct matching’, which matches up apps that you visit while being signed into Facebook or Google enabling you to be found on multiple devices. According to their website this service is 100% accurate, no doubt because they’re partners with Facebook and Google. In fact the technology just sounds like a jargon laden version of the ad-tracking tools that Facebook already offers. More on this below.

Facebook and Google tracks you too

The Facebook like button has a small piece of code that tracks you as well as the Facebook share button when sharing online content, and then there’s Facebook Pixel. You only need to visit a page that has one of these buttons or Pixel code attached to it for it to collect data about you. What is Facebook Pixel, you may be asking? Pixel allows you to track user movements offline with: “A piece of code for your website that lets you measure, optimise and build audiences for your ad campaigns.” It tracks your activities and reports it back to Facebook and the code doesn’t expire like traditional cookies do. Advertisers can track what users are doing offline even if they don’t have a Facebook account, it’s called ‘shadow profiling’. Google does this too, even if you don’t have a Gmail account you only need to communicate with a Gmail address for one to be created.

Asher Wolf has recently written about how the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) with an unnamed telco, did an experiment in 2016 to track people by using their mobile devices. It turned out that the telco was Telstra, the ABS said that their reasoning for the experiment was to estimate temporary populations, and to assist policy makers. It’s not too far of a stretch to assume that this data has been entered into Palantir’s Fusion software, and you have to wonder what else the ABS and the government have been secretly up to in the last couple of years since.

The ABS promptly released a statement claiming that the data that they used was non-identifiable, this argument is wrong. Technology has advanced far enough that it can re-identify anonymous people’s data.

i360 uses set top box data to tailor ads 

i360 has a TV targeting service which offers personalised TV ads that can be shown on any channel or program being watched. They’ve partnered with D2 Media (the image below is their business model), and it’s available in America through Dish Satellite TV, or Direct TV. These services and set top boxes are also available in Australia. In 2015 Dish TV partnered up with Freeview as its manufacturer, and it’s of note that Foxtel is currently in the process of transferring its cable service over to satellite. Are there plans afoot for this in Australia in the near future, or are they already in place?

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Political party’s, volunteers, contractors and representatives, exempt from Privacy Act

The last time that there was a Privacy Act review was ten-years ago. It lasted more than two-years and recommended hundred’s of reforms. Many Australians don’t realise that registered political parties are specifically excluded from the definition of ‘organisation’, so they’re exempt from the Privacy Act. Also exempt from it are political representatives (MPs, and local government councillors), volunteers for political parties, and contractors and subcontractors of political parties. One of the recommendations was for the exemption to be removed. Both major parties ignored the recommendation. In light of recent events with Cambridge Analytica and Facebook I think it’s time to remove the exemption. If political campaigning is no longer a public process and is done in private,  being exempt from the Privacy Act is no longer acceptable.

The Liberal Party database and i360 combine   

i360 has been specifically formulated to sync and capture data from the Liberal Party’s database, Feedback. Feedback is operated by Parakeelia Pty Ltd which provides the party with the software for their data to be entered into. It’s owned by the Liberal Party. Feedback consists of data obtained from door knocking, phone calls, visits to MP offices, email responses, online and call surveys, census data, and social media data. This data combined with their software enables you to pinpoint swinging voters and marginal seats like never before. Similar to Google maps you can click on a location and it will pull up everything that you need to know about a person, including a script to read to them. Volunteers can make calls from home and door-knockers are saved time by the app providing directions to the next targeted voter to win over. The apps save time door knocking and calling, as you only target voters that you need to. 

Parakeelia transfers money back to the Liberal Party, how is i360 being paid for?

In 2016 it was revealed that Liberal MPs had been paying $2,500 each to Parakeelia out of their software allowance for its services. Labor MPs also paid about the same for their database Campaign Central which isn’t owned by the party, it’s run by third-party provider Magenta Linas. Parakeelia started to transfer money from the company back to the party in 2010. In 2010 it was $12,100 with amounts continuing to rise with a 2016 transfer of $915,000. This made Parakeelia the party’s biggest donor for that financial year. There were concerns by Labor and the Greens that money was essentially being laundered through Parakeelia to boost Liberal coffers. However a limited-scope review by the National Audit Office in the same year, found that Parakeelia was not in breach of any electoral or parliamentary rules. University of Queensland Law Professor, Graeme Orr thinks that Parakeelia presents problems “deeper than strict legalities.”

“You have a question of a business built on taxpayers funds returning money to a political party: that’s problematic in a way we haven’t seen before,” he said. He thinks that these issues would be avoided if they chose their IT provider through a tender.

Unfortunately I couldn’t find any information after these financial years save for a vague tax return from 2016-17. We know that i360 costs at least $25,000 a month, who paid for the SA Liberals to use it and how are the financially struggling Victorian Liberals paying for it? If tax payers are, than that would be all shades of wrong and would take us  further into unchartered territory.

New entitlement rule changes opens up electoral budgets for software purchases

Following on from software allowances, late last year, new regulations for entitlement spending were quietly introduced by Special Minister for State, Mathias Cormann. Instead of receiving a $2,500 software allowance, for the first time MPs can now spend some of their electoral budget on software and services. These services include: robocalls, SMS and survey services, ‘subject to the limit of your office budget’.

Are taxpayers paying for themselves to be politically targeted?

How the NationBuilder platform compliments i360 software

i360 software needs a platform as well as a database to work. In early 2015 Indaily obtained documents that outlined how the SA Liberals were going to start training MPs and staff to use NationBuilder. NationBuilder is software that brings together services like WordPress, Mailchimp and PayPal on to the same platform. It imports things like the details of interactions with an MPs office from the Feedback database and builds profiles on people by syncing this with social media. NationBuilder also creates websites with donation platforms and provides content management. The documents describe the platform as “an electronic program where we can import emails and build profiles on voters” and how “it will track what people are liking, what they’re commenting on and add all of this information to their individual profiles.”  

“Anyone who leaves a comment on Steven’s website is sucked in by NationBuilder, and a profile is created for them.”

NationBuilder has been used by Labor and some of the Greens for the last few years or so, according to the NationBuilder website it’s used in Australia by a number of parties. NationBuilder is used by politicians of all stripes around the world, President Trump used it for his election campaign and it was the platform that was used by both sides of the Brexit campaign.

Strange misinformation campaigns during elections, becoming the norm

To look at all of this in totality I’ll briefly explain a disinformation campaign that was also in play during the SA election. An early voting website that appeared to be from the SA Electoral Commission (ECSA), was actually authorised by the Liberal State Director. The authorisation line was at the bottom of the website in a light font. There was also a range of ads distributed to mailboxes and posted on social media making out that they were from the ECSA. It is unclear who was behind all of it exactly. The website and flyers requested personal details from those that were targeted. Three-weeks before the election after receiving complaints, the ECSA said:

“South Australians are advised that, if they provide personal details in response to these flyers or via the website, these have not come to ECSA.”

“ECSA advises that you should exercise extreme caution when releasing your personal information.”    

These are tactics that are designed to deceive you and to slyly take your data, Republicans have been doing it in America for years. Every vote counts and every dirty tactic that is available is in use in Australia now. Anything that you see online like email surveys, or in your mailbox that asks for your details, be very wary.          

Study about social media’s impact on elections, partly funded by a Koch Foundation

Facebook has recently announced a commission of researchers to study social media’s impact on elections to appease the groundswell that is building against their influence in elections. They will be given unprecedented access to Facebook data. Financing for this is coming from foundations including from one of the Koch brothers, the Charles Koch Foundation. There is understandably major concern about this, they’re known for not being the type of donors that just donate and step away, they like to be involved.

Facial recognition technology, and new tools on the horizon

Despite all of the recent privacy controversy Facebook wants to be able to run facial recognition scans without your consent. Legislators in America are still considering a change to the Biometric Information Privacy Act (BIPA). For years Facebook has fought a lawsuit regarding the handling of biometric data like fingerprints or facial recognition profiles. The plaintiffs argue that Facebook’s photo-tagging system violates the law because photos that are uploaded in this way are done so without consent. It’s of note that even if you aren’t tagged in a photo, their tech can find you. Facebook wants these consent protections neutered. Free access to pictures for years including Facebook owned Instagram, has no doubt sped facial recognition technology along.

Facebook has a new tech patent to determine social class, seriously, more hereThey also have patents relating to eye activity, and the tracking of your relatives. And Google has a new tool out that will no doubt be shared and tweaked for further use in political campaigning. It’s called Plus Codes and it pinpoints locations extremely accurately. Google wanted to address the problem of high-density slums in India where just 30% have accurate locations for their addresses. There is a general election in India next year.

There is so much more that is already here and coming soon: the tracking of your car, listening to your phone calls, looking inside your house and the use of AI that studies CCTV footage to predict crime before it happens.

Is there hope?

Yes, Sir Tim Berners-Lee is working on a project called Solid. He’s working on a solution of separating apps from the data that they produce. An app built using Solid architecture would ask users where they want to store their data, ownership of your data and access to all of the data that you create. He believes that rather than our data being locked up with a company, we should have the choice of who to share or not share our data with. Who knows what innovations we could come up with ourselves and within our communities?

In conclusion

Government’s entering the surveillance game alongside Palantir is chilling to say the least. Decisions based on algorithms without our consent and with no human oversight is a dangerous path to go down. A lot of predictive technology promise governments the world but most of it is largely unproven. The current Privacy Act doesn’t protect us as it should, this isn’t Facebook being dodgy with their user terms, default options and making it impossible to opt out of things, it’s our own government. Election wise its hardly democratic or ethical to target and influence voters secretly using their own data, perhaps even charging taxpayers to do so. The misinformation tactics also need urgent addressing it’s bad enough that our data is being used to manipulate us, to misinform us at the same time for a vote is cruel and immoral.

Many thanks to all that have helped contribute to this article.

 

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Australian Super Funds wanting to invest in America’s infrastructure privatisation, is it ethical?

When I recently learned of the push for Australia’s superannuation industry to invest in American infrastructure, alarm bells rang. Neoliberalism is still very much in economical favour so what was this really all about? When I read articles about it from Australia a little closer, I realised that they were missing the meat of the story, all that I was reading was the bare bones.

Firstly there is no $US1.5 trillion infrastructure plan as such in the 2019 budget. The Trump administration’s infrastructure plan is basically a finance deal that includes deregulation, and the privatisation of America’s state and local government assets. $US200bn is all that the American government is willing to spend including $US100bn that has been allocated to an Incentives Program. These figures however, do not include $US178bn worth of cuts to be made in the state and local government’s infrastructure budgets. They pretty much cancel each other out. The deep cuts in funding, and the need to fix their infrastructure will leave many of these government’s no choice but to look at private funding and selling off its assets.

No matter where the funding comes from, privatisation requires taking over a government function at a lower cost than the government can provide it, and to make a profit, or it wouldn’t be worth its while.  

America has been undergoing privatisation since the Reagan administration through its neoliberal policies. These policies enabled private to take over energy infrastructure and utilities, but not roads, rails, ports and airports, they have mainly remained as state and local government assets. Privatisation though is not as popular as it once was due to American’s seeing and living with the consequences of privatisation; they know how it affects their lives, wallets, and their communities. In Chicago for example, parking meters were privatised 10-years ago with a 75-year lease that has cost the city $US974m in lost revenue, so far.

Privatisation in Australia under the guise of ‘asset recycling’ has been used to lobby American politicians for the last couple of years. It was introduced to Australia by former Australian Treasurer, Joe Hockey. Hockey in his current role as American Ambassador has led the charge with assistance from others, including former New South Wales Premier Mike Baird. In Australia it involved selling state assets to private to help pay for infrastructure projects, and the federal government paid an incentive payment to add to the funding. There were no big cuts or deregulation involved. The super fund’s think selling it to the American public as “workers capital” rather than private, to pay for public assets will do the trick. The super funds have even re-branded: Public Private Partnerships in America, to Pension Public Partnerships.

You might be asking yourself: ‘Why should I care where or how Australian Super is invested if it’s bringing back returns?’ That’s a good question. America has inflicted neoliberalism policies around the world for the last 40-years, this has led to the global decay of infrastructure. The global race to fix ailing infrastructure (or to gobble up what’s left of public assets), is being touted by Australia’s Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, as the answer to sustaining economic growth. Neoliberal policies are profit driven, whereas things like infrastructure maintenance are not very profitable. Hence the decline. Pretty ironic when you think about it.       

Is it right or ethical for super funds to invest in a country that is also being deregulated within an inch of its life to make it easier for private with their investments? There are grave concerns for the plan to deregulate the country’s water supplies, some water utilities are already struggling to keep their water clean. Did you know that 16 million Americans get sick from dirty tap water each year? Deregulation, especially in regards to environmental restrictions designed to protect communities, will once again add to the monetary burden of cleaning it up onto the states and local governments. Even if super funds just invested in toll roads there like IFM Investors with their Indiana investment, wouldn’t it be better to invest in Australia’s infrastructure? In particular renewable energy, there’s a whole industry waiting to be untapped. Or perhaps the super funds could look to our neighbours in Asia needing infrastructure assistance, including being climate change ready. There is so much more to ethically invest in than road tolls and user charges around the world.

And on a final note, another concern that I have is if investing super into anything that makes a profit becomes the norm and accepted, what other ideas or policies that are unpalatable now, are lurking waiting for the right moment to be introduced? The privatisation of sidewalks in Australia? It’s already happening in Kansas City and Missouri.

There are only public assets (including public land), and services left to invest in or take over. If this were to happen what would the world look like? I don’t even want to imagine.         

 

SOS from Manus

In April 2016, the Papua New Guinea (PNG) Supreme Court, ruled that Australia’s detention of asylum seekers on Manus Island was illegal. Their detention breached the PNG constitution, and their right to personal liberty. They’re detained on Lombrum naval base,  thirty-minutes away from the nearest town, Lorengau. After three-years of being held on the guarded base, they were now allowed to go, with restrictions, into town, by bus in daylight hours. The Australian and PNG governments, were ordered to start taking steps to end the detention of asylum seekers there.

It wasn’t until this year, that both of the government’s announced that the camp on the naval base was to be closed down. The deadline is this Tuesday, the 31st of October. Compounds housing asylum seekers on Manus have been progressively shut down since. They have been given four options:

Relocate to the East, Lorengau Transit Centre

Go home voluntarily

Settle in PNG

Resettle in a third country

During this time, locals have enjoyed employment and enjoyed earning money that most have never seen before. More than one-thousand locals have lost their jobs. Since the closure announcement, tensions have risen dramatically, with more robberies, and violence against the men held on Manus. To the point that many are too afraid to take the risk to go into town, they feel safer on the naval base. There is no point reporting anything that happens to them because the PNG police don’t do anything. Around 70 men are currently, at the transit centre, with over 600 cooped up on the naval base, refusing to move to the centre. They’re too terrified to go as it is not safe, the locals have made it very clear that they don’t want them there.  

Communications from Manus

I’ve been in communication with an asylum seeker on Manus, for the last few months. Out of respect for his privacy and concern for his safety, I’m keeping his identity anonymous. I will call him Rick. With the October deadline approaching, and anxiety building, a few days ago, he shared a few things with me.

He met an Australian man on Manus recently, and while discussing his situation, he told him that he wanted to go and have a look at the new camp, at the Lorengau Transit Centre. The man replied:

‘Don’t go there, locals are so angry, and they might do something silly to you.’

He said that a few days ago he was in a meeting with locals who told him that they hated the men and wouldn’t accept them, and that:

‘We don’t want any refugees around our neighbourhood.’

Rick also told me how he had met and spoken of his concerns with David Yapu, a local Police Commander, on Manus.  

He also shared his concerns and said that the police have been given:

‘No clear direction about your situation, if anything happens, we have no direction of what to do.’

Yapu apologised to Rick and said that:

‘We’re really sorry for what Australia is doing to you’.

He also said that what Australia was doing to them was:

‘Inhumane, and shouldn’t happen to any person in the world’.

The compassion from someone from a police force, renowned for their brutality, wasn’t lost on Rick.   

The new transit centre isn’t safe 

It was revealed in senate estimates this week, that the new construction at the transit centre being built in Lorengau by the Australian government, hasn’t even finished being built. Rick and his Australian friend, went together, to have a look at the new transit centre, but authorities wouldn’t let them in. The government says that it will be finished by tomorrow, the 29th of October. As the closure date looms closer, locals have threatened violence against builders working on the centre, as well as vandalising and blockading it. Landowners of the centre, don’t want any refugee centres in residential areas. They say they’ve had no warning or consultation by the Australian government, and the PNG government has also been kept in the dark about the new construction going on at the centre. There is also a petition being circulated around Lorengau calling for the Australian government to take the men to Australia, until a third country has been found for them. In one community meeting an elderly man said:

“I’m going to get the youths. We’ll get spear guns, knives, axes, spades, crowbars and we will block the road.”

Many of the refugees and asylum seekers have been locked up there for over four-years. Of the 718 men on Manus, most of the men have been found to be refugees. There is also a group of around forty men known as the ‘Forties’, that have refused from the beginning, to be settled in PNG if they were found to be refugees. They have been given negative results despite not being processed, including my friend Rick. When the option came up to resettle in America, Rick felt glad that he had stood his ground, because he felt that the Australian Border Force, was lying about PNG being the only option for him to resettle. He could see straight away that PNG was very dangerous and knew he wasn’t wanted, all of the men know this and feel this way. He has asked many, many times for over a year, to tell his story and to be processed, but they said that he’s lost his chance and he’s not getting another. They are threatening deportation.    

Broken men  

This week the men were given medical packs to last them for one-month, with no further assistance. Most of the men are on medication, to help them sleep. Also for physical and mental health problems, that require professional care. It’s alarming that they would give such a large of medication to them, without guidance, particularly when mentally unstable. Interpreters for the men are rare too, leading to miscommunications and misunderstandings between the different nationalities. The seeds of conflict were sown from the start, however. The locals were told that the asylum seekers were dangerous criminals, and the asylum seekers were told that the locals had deadly diseases, and that they were cannibals.                 

In mid-February 2014, a violent riot broke out in the detention centre, lasting two days. Many of the men had already been imprisoned for nine-months with no clue as to what was going to happen to them. No asylum seekers had even been processed yet, they were understandably demanding answers about processing their claims and resettlement. When immigration officers arrived and told them that they were going to be resettled in PNG, one of the men asked:

“Okay, you are saying you are going to resettle us, but your country is listed as 39 out of 40 notorious countries, and how – I mean you can’t even control your own people, how do you think that you could resettle us and give us a life here?”

G4S had the detention centre contract at the time (Broadspectrum took over the contracts, after the riot), and their staff and guards, warned against such an announcement. Based on intelligence, G4S was worried about the potential for conflict. Immigration on site agreed with the decision not to tell the men, but it was overturned by immigration in Canberra. The announcement, was the catalyst for the riot.

Violence and murder on Manus

Iranian asylum-seeker, Reza Barati, was murdered. Another man lost his eye, one man was shot in his buttocks, and another had his throat slit. Seventy-seven others were treated for serious injuries. It wasn’t until 2016, that a former G4S employee, and a former Salvation Army employee, (both PNG nationals), were arrested for the murder of Reza Barati. Their sentence was reduced because there were so many other people involved in the murder. The other people involved were local residents and local security guards. Nobody else has ever been charged for the murder, or for the other serious injuries, inflicted on scores of others. One of the men charged for the murder has escaped twice from prison. He is currently still on the run.   

On Good Friday this year, drunken PNG soldiers fired into the detention centre on the naval base. This time security guards, refugees and immigration officials were assaulted. Nobody has ever been charged for this incident either. Six men have died on Manus, two of the deaths have been in the last few months, both of the deceased, were found near the transit centre in Lorengau. It has been reported that the deaths were suicide due to mental illness, some have their doubts.        

A matter of human rights

The Australian government is currently trying to force the men off of the naval base and into the new centre by withholding medical services, emptying rain-water tanks, closing the mess and withholding fruit, sugar  and coffee cups. Interestingly the fruit, sugar and coffee cups were stopped from been handed out, but the men have started receiving them again. The men wonder if the Australian government is worried about being found to abuse human rights again. Lawyer Ben Lomai, is seeking orders from the court that food and water should be provided after the 31st of October.

“If there’s anything, food and water should be maintained because that’s their constitutional right,” he said to Radio New Zealand.

“So you can’t deny them food and water. So if they are allowed to stay there then those are the two services they can be entitled to. Other things can be subject to further negotiation.”  

He is also seeking orders to guarantee the men’s safety if and when they are moved to the centre and for a requirement that refugees are offered settlement in a third country.

The men have been given food-packs to last two days. Electricity is set to be turned off and the PNG military have been ordered to take over the base next Tuesday.  There should be a sense of urgency, not complacently seeing how it will all turn out, and a lets hope for the best, type of attitude.   

Fiji gets dragged into the political arena

Not only have PNG’s mobile squads been deployed to assist with moving the men from the navy base but Fiji guards have been employed by a PNG company to guard the refugees and asylum seekers for one-year as of tomorrow. This is already not going down well in Manus, locals are asking why can’t they have the forty-two jobs?  There has been pay comparisons too with the Fijians being paid a lot more than locals for the last four years. This will not bode well.

Time to end the political games

In my mind, we have moved beyond the blame game, or one-upmanship that both major parties have played. Beyond the billions of dollars spent playing these games. And beyond, even resettling asylum seekers like Rick in Australia, many of them don’t want to come here, and I don’t blame them. But they do want to be resettled in another country, that is safe, and they deserve to become, contributing members of society again.

We also can’t ignore the fact that this is being done for political reasons, especially when we look at the fact, that as of last June, there were more than 64,000 people overstaying their visas in Australia. Nearly 7,000 have overstayed for fifteen to twenty years. The most humane and sensible approach would be to bring them to Australia for processing, and to take it from there, for resettling them.

They’ve lost so much, stealing years away from them, means that when they do finally get resettled, the road ahead will be much steeper, especially in regards to gaining employment. We are heading towards the five-year mark of their imprisonment on an island in the middle of nowhere, the world has changed so much in this time. And of course so have they, but what strikes me the most about these men is how strong they are, and how kind-hearted they are, despite everything that Australia has put them through.

Updated: 29/10/2017

Many thanks to all of the sourced researchers, publications and artists involved in this article and in my series.

          

 

The standard that you walk past…

Income management isn’t new in Australia, what is new, is the current government’s ideological push to enforce neoliberal policies on an unsuspecting Australia. In 2007, Professor Helen Hughes, wrote ‘Lands of Shame: Aboriginal and Torres Strait “homelands” in Transition.’ A few months before it was published, Hughes gave it to the Office of Indigenous Policy Coordination (OIPC), the department responsible for indigenous policies. The Minister for Indigenous Affairs was Mal Brough.

The book was published by conservative think tank, the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS). It’s final chapter, reads like a blueprint for what occurs in the Northern Territory (NT) in June 2007. It calls for the closure of Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory (NT); a health audit of all children; the appointment of administrators; private home ownership; and the abolition of communal title customary law; the permit system and Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP). The book was also highly critical of policies relating to self-determination and land rights, branding them failed socialist experiments.   

The use of a book, research or reports produced by a think tank, or a foundation, for government policies isn’t a new tactic. The Ronald Reagan policies from 1980’s, were mostly from the Heritage Foundation, which has been heavily financed for years by the conservative elite, and the likes of the Koch brothers.      

Before we go any further, I need to provide some background, and a timeline of events. The Howard government, received many detailed reports about the escalating violence in Indigenous communities, but they were never actioned. With thanks to Chris Graham (current owner of New Matilda), Crikey and Michael Brull, for their succinct research over the last decade relating to the Intervention.

So many reports, not enough action

Indigenous academic, Boni Robertson, completed many detailed reports throughout the nineties. Robertson also led an inquiry in 1999, that actually involved Indigenous Australians, with fifty-senior women representing their communities in Queensland (QLD). In 1999, a shocking report about Indigenous violence, was released by Doctor Paul Memmott. The report was suppressed from the media and the public by the Justice Minister, Amanda Vanstone for eighteen months. By the time that the media got wind of it, it was old news and nobody really cared.

All of these reports and inquiries, warned of the numerous problems in Indigenous communities. The causes of family violence stem from a failure of government to provide adequate services, education and housing infrastructure. It’s also a failure from both sides of the political spectrum to acknowledge Indigenous culture and their relationship with the land. Neo-colonialism is still a problem in Australia, despite the fact that Indigenous Australians are the oldest known civilisation on earth.  They’ve hundreds of languages and their map of Australia is made up of many nations, not a handful of states. Wanting them to assimilate into a monolingual, mono-cultural society is one thing, the reality is another.       

In 2002, the Central Aboriginal Congress prepared a paper showing how the number of indigenous women being treated for domestic assault had more than doubled since 1999. A year later Howard staged a ‘roundtable summit’ of Indigenous leaders to address family violence. This achieved nothing.

An election was approaching in 2006, and for the government and the media, Indigenous violence was a popular topic. At one point, ABC Lateline had filed seventeen stories about it in just eight nights. Crown Prosecutor Nanette Rogers, was on the show in May that year and spoke of her experience with violence against children, including sexual violence in remote communities. What Rogers spoke about was exactly what Dr Memmott had detailed in his suppressed report, seven years earlier.

The media heats up

Minister Brough appeared on Lateline the next day and told the host, Tony Jones that: “Everybody in those communities knows who runs the pedophile rings.”

Jones: “You just said something that astonishes me. You said pedophile rings. What evidence is there of that?”

Brough said that there was “considerable evidence” but provided none. Claire Martin, the NT’s Labor Chief Minister, called on him to provide evidence of the allegation, he said nothing. Five weeks later on June the 21st 2006, Lateline had an anonymous male, former youth worker on their program. He backed up what Brough said:

“It’s true. I’ve been told by a number of people of men getting young girls and keeping them as sex slaves.”

The youth worker, claimed that he was once based in Mutitjulu, working in a joint community project for the NT and federal governments. The Mutitjulu community are the legal custodians of Uluru, or Ayers Rock.

His identity was hidden with his face shadowed and a digitised voice, and he cried as he detailed how he’d made repeated statements and reports to police about sexual violence, in Mutitjulu. He said that he’d withdrawn the reports after being threatened by men in the community, and that he feared for his life. He also said that young indigenous children were being held against their will, and that other kids were being given petrol to sniff in exchange for sex with senior indigenous men.

The next day, Martin announced that her NT government would hold a major inquiry into violence against children in Indigenous communities. Also on that day, Brough finally responded to calls for evidence of his accusations. He released a press statement, saying that information had been passed onto NT police, and that he’d been advised that “for legal and confidentiality reasons, I am unable to disclose detail.”

Questions asked too late, the damage is done

A few weeks later, the National Indigenous Times reported that the youth worker crying about his experience in Mutitjulu on Lateline wasn’t a youth worker at all. He was actually, Gregory Andrews an assistant secretary at the OIPC, and an adviser to Brough. He advised Brough about violence and sexual abuse in remote communities. Later it was revealed in parliament, that Andrews had never made a single report to police about women or children. He also misled a federal senate inquiry into petrol sniffing in 2006 and lied about living in Mutitjulu, he had never even set foot there.

All of Andrew’s allegations were thoroughly investigated and dismissed by the NT police. And the Australian Crime Commission, spent eighteen-months and millions of dollars, and also concluded that there was no organised paedophilia in Indigenous communities. 

Martin’s inquiry reported back to her in August 2006. The inquiry’s final report: Little Children are Sacred, was handed to the NT government, in April 2007. It was impressive and was more than 300-pages-long, with ninety-one recommendations. The authors, Pat Anderson and Rex Wild, didn’t have an easy job, but they said that they were:

“impressed with the willingness of people to discuss the issue of child sexual abuse, even though it was acknowledged as a difficult subject to talk about. At many meetings, both men and women expressed a desire to continue discussions about this issue and what they could do in their community about it. It was a frequent comment that up until now, nobody had come to sit down and talk with them about these types of issues. It would seem both timely and appropriate to build on this good will, enthusiasm and energy by a continued engagement in dialogue and assisting communities to develop their own child safety and protection plans.”

But before the Martin government could respond to the report and without any consultation with her, or even his own cabinet. Howard and Brough used the report as a catalyst to launch their Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER), or the Intervention.

The Intervention

The Intervention relied heavily on shock tactics. Naomi Klein has covered these extensively in her book about disaster capitalism. It favours a multi-pronged, speedy attack, this helps to create cover to introduce unsavoury or neoliberal policies. The Intervention ticks all of the boxes.

The NT and the Australian Federal Police, were sent into remote Indigenous communities, and the army and business managers were installed into Indigenous communities. Signs were put up declaring bans on pornography and alcohol in towns. It was framed as a “national emergency” and while everyone was distracted, and with a senate majority, the federal government was free to pursue its agenda. NTER (Northern Territory Emergency Response), was a $587 million package of measures, and laws regarding human rights, had to be changed or suspended, to get the new legislation through, these included:

Racial Discrimination Act 1975.

Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976.

Native Title Act 1993(Cth).

Northern Territory Self-Government Act and related legislation.

Social Security Act 1991.

IncomeTax Assessment Act 1993.

As a result of the new legislation, regulations were introduced to ban access to alcohol, tobacco, pornographic material, and gambling services. Land was compulsorily acquired by the government in seventy Indigenous communities, this was to ensure that there were no interruptions by traditional owners. An income management scheme was introduced, the BasicsCard, which was actually born out of an Indigenous innovation.

The FOODCard was introduced by the Arnhem Land Progress Aboriginal Corporation (ALPA) in 2004, the idea came about after community consultations. The main differences between the two cards are that one had community consultations, while the other did not. The terms and conditions for the FOODCard are available in Yolngu Matha and English for example, while the BasicsCard is in English only.

The other key difference is that the ALPA one is voluntary and you can set for yourself how much money to quarantine, whereas the government one is compulsory, and quarantines 50%-80% of income. The FOODCard was rolled out in 2007, but by then the BasicsCard had taken over.

Neoliberal ideology

The government waited a month until it introduced its last measure, abolishing a program called Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP). The CDEP was one of the programs that was working, it allowed communities to pool all of their unemployment benefits together. This was then paid out as a direct wage for local jobs within the community, or within the CDEP organisations.

Participants were counted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics as employed, even though the funds originated from unemployment benefits. A form of self-government, and a good solution for unemployment that empowered many communities, especially remote ones.

Communities were also sent pamphlets from Centrelink, explaining that they now had to do something in return for their Centrelink money. The pamphlet also said that they had to call them with their contact details, or their payments might be stopped.  

Dr David Scrimgeour, told the Public Health Association of Australia conference in September, that year that:

‘Most of the recommendations … have been implemented by the Commonwealth Government in the NT under the guise of protecting children, despite the fact that the recommendations are not based on evidence, but on neo-liberal ideology.’

He also said that the think-tank, CIS, that published Helen Hughes’ book, received ‘significant support from large corporations, particularly mining companies, and has close links with the Government and the media, particularly the Murdoch-owned newspaper The Australian.’

Reports ignored or used as political tools

So what does income management look like in the NT, ten years after the Intervention? The authors of the Little Children are Sacred report have both said that the report’s recommendations were ignored and that it was used as a political tool to push for an Intervention. Wild said this year that:

“One of the threshold items of the report is that community consultation is needed to be able to best implement the report and that clearly didn’t happen.”

Since the Intervention, report after report gets written about socio-economic disadvantage, and the negative aspects felt by those on income management, only to be ignored. They all have a common theme, that there is no evidence of value behind income management programs, and that they didn’t change behaviours. Is it the government’s place to modify human behaviour with financial measures?  

There is one report though that has been listened to, it was commissioned by the Abbott government and reviewed by mining billionaire, Andrew Forrest. It was released in 2014: Creating Parity – the Forrest Review. Forrest and his Minderoo Foundation, want a new card called the “Healthy Welfare Card” to replace the BasicsCard. It would apply to all working age Australians, around 2.5 million Australians, if you exempt pensioners and veterans. This is consistent with Abbott’s view in his book Battlelines.   

Following the BasicsCard money

The BasicsCard started out as store card’s from merchants such as Coles and Woolworths; by direct deduction of funds set up by a merchant; or by Centrelink making a credit card or cheque payment. This was too cumbersome, so in 2008 the federal government started the process of procurement for an open tender of the card. Five tender applications were received and the winner was Indue Ltd.

Indue started out as Creditlink, it changed its name in 2006 a year after Larry Anthony, former Liberal National Party MP became chairman of its board. Anthony was the chairman of Indue until 2013, and he’s been the Federal President of the National Party since 2015. Indue’s win was publically announced in December 2009, the original contract was worth just over $11 million for three-years, it ballooned out to over $25 million.

I’ve gone through the tenders and contracts relating to the card, there are thirteen in total to date. Out of those, seven of the contracts are limited, so none of the finer details are available for the public.

Open Tender, Contract Total:      

$31,138,574.50 million

Limited Tender, Contract Total:   

$29,064,436.16 million 

Total: $60,203,010.66  

Cashless welfare card cost, blow-out

The ‘cashless welfare card’ trials were originally slated to cost taxpayers $18.9 million. 

According to the government tender, the original contract for Indue was worth $7,859,509 million, (media reports round it up to $8 million), it’s now at $13,035,581.16 million.

That’s just the Indue part, if we add the remaining $10.9 million for the other contracts involved in the income management program, we get a total of $23,935,581.16.

There’s 1,850 participants in the trial which began last year, so the cost of the card works out to be $12,938.15 per person.

Using the maximum Newstart allowance of a single person as an example, which is $535.60 per fortnight; they would receive $13,925.60 for the year. Add the Indue layer and the total is $26,863.75 per person.

A lot of money provided by taxpayers for behaviour change, and of course a nice profit for Indue, especially if it rolls out to millions of Australians. The millions of dollars flying about without any oversight, and the political connections are a grave cause for concern.

Income management rolls out nationally

In 2012, the Gillard government extended income management nationally, and for another ten-years. In the House of Representatives during the debate about the ‘Stronger Futures Legislation’, Senator Nigel Scullion, Country Liberal Party member, said this:

There is a fundamental thread through most of the feedback we get when we talk about consultation. When we get to most communities any observer would say that Aboriginal people more generally hate the intervention. They do not like it, it invades their rights and they feel discriminated against.”

He still voted with the Gillard government. NTER was renamed, Stronger Futures. He went on to become the leader of the Nationals in the Senate, and Minister for Indigenous Affairs in 2013, and he still holds these positions.  

Since the Intervention, the model has expanded from remote communities in the NT to the Kimberley region and Perth in WA; Cape York; all of the NT and selected areas of ‘disadvantage’. The areas that are deemed as disadvantaged are: Logan in QLD, Bankstown in New South Wales (NSW), Shepparton in Victoria and Playford in SA.

Six different income management measures:

  1. Participation/Parenting – NT only, when the government deems you ‘at risk’ if you’ve been on a welfare for a certain amount of time.
  2. Vulnerable welfare – When you’re referred to income management by a Centrelink social worker.
  3. Child protection income management – NT and some parts of WA, a child protection officer refers you to income management.
  4. Cape York measure – People there are put on income management, if they engage in    dysfunctional behaviour.
  5. Place based income management – For people living in five targeted communities that have been referred for income management.
  6. Supporting people at risk – People are referred for income management by certain state and territory agencies.

As of 25th March 2016, there were 26,508 on income management programs, 20,941 of those were indigenous.

Trial sites, and another report

The three-part Orima Report is being used by the government, to not only extend draconian, income management measures, but also to quantify its success. Social and political researcher, Eva Cox sums up the report perfectly in a Facebook post, on The Say No Seven page :   

“The whole data set of interviews, quantitative and qualitative, are very poorly designed and not likely to be valid data collection instruments. I’d fail any of my research students that produced such dubious instruments.”   

The reports includes a lot of spin, asks respondents for their ‘perceptions’ at times, and includes retrospective responses, for questionnaires. The Say No Seven page, has been following all three of the reports closely, they crunched the numbers at the start of this month, when the final Orima report was released. An example cam be found on page forty-six:

“At Wave 2, as was the case in Wave 1, around four-in-ten non-participants (on average across the two Trial sites) perceived that there had been a reduction in drinking in their community since the CDCT commenced.”

This approach means that the reader focuses on the minority of responses, rather than the majority of responses. Six-in-ten not perceiving any reduction in drinking around town. It reads a lot differently than the latter.

Other places rumoured to be put on the card trial are Hervey Bay and Bundaberg in QLD. One peaceful rally against the card in Hervey Bay involved armed police, with protest organiser Kathryn Wilkes saying:

“There were eight of us women aged between 40 and 60 … We were very peaceful.

“They’re afraid of a bunch of sick women on the (disability support pension).

“If you pushed me over I’d end up in hospital. Most of us couldn’t fight our way out of a paper bag.”

This heavy-handed approach is all too familiar…

Star chambers and regrets

Which leads me to the anonymous, paid community panels that determine whether those put on income management should be able to access more cash from their bank accounts. Meddling in communities like this isn’t new, it’s been happening in indigenous ones for years. Turning communities against one another is surely not the role of the government. It also allows them to neatly deflect any accountability for the program.  

The BasicsCard can also make life harder for those already living in poverty, in that you’re restricted from buying second-hand items with cash, or something cheap online. It also means that things like how you pay your electricity bills for example, is decided by Centrelink, so no more payment plans. That’s what income management is, it’s not about just being put on a card as such.       

Two trial sites were chosen to trial the BasicsCard card for one-year in 2016, one in Ceduna South Australia, and one in WA’s Kimberley region. The trials were extended indefinitely this year, before the trials had even finished, and before the final Orima report was released just this month.

One of four indigenous leaders from WA that originally supported the scheme has since withdrawn his support for the card. Lawford Benning, chair of the MG Corporation, says he feels “used” by the Human Services minister, Alan Tudge. He met regularly with Tudge ahead of the cards introduction over a year ago, and helped drum up support for it. He said that services that were promised in return were not provided until seven-months later, and that what was finally offered was no good.

“I’m not running away from the fact that I was supporting this. But now I’m disappointed and I owe it to my people to speak up,” Benning said. “Every person I’ve spoken with said they don’t want this thing here.”

When Benning heard that the card was going to be permanent and about the roll out of the card at other sites:

“I said hang on, it sounds like you’re trying to get a rubber stamp on something already under way, in an attempt to legitimise something the community doesn’t support.”

“I said to him ‘your minister isn’t showing respect to us’. Prior to introducing the card Tudge was flying here every second weekend to meet with us. As soon as we signed up, we’ve never seen him again.”

Take a drug-test or no welfare for new recipients                        

The latest legislation currently before the parliament, involves a two-year drug-testing trial for 5,000 people in Bankstown (NSW), Logan (QLD), and Mandurah (WA). If it passes, new recipients of the Newstart and Youth allowance have to agree to be tested, in order to receive their allowances. If they refuse a random drug-test, their payments will be cancelled. If they test positively they will be placed on the BasicsCard program, with 80% of their income support going onto the Indue card and 20% of their allowance paid into their usual bank account. Twenty-five days later they get tested again and if they test positively again, they will be referred to a privately contracted medical professional.     

There is no evidence that mandatory drug-testing will work on civilians despite what Social Services minister, Christian Porter says, this ABC fact-check puts that to rest.

‘Experts say that, rather than lots of evidence, there is no evidence, here or overseas, to show that mandatory testing will help unemployed drug addicts receive treatment and find jobs.’

The City of Mandurah has accused the Turnbull government of using dodgy data to justify being chosen for the drug-testing trial. City chief executive, Mark Newman wrote:

“One statistic used is that there has been an increase in people having temporary incapacity exemptions due to a drug dependency diagnosis rose by 300% from June 2015 to 2016.”

“The number of people concerned was a rise from 5 to 20 out of a total number of 4,199 people in Mandurah on either Newstart or Youth Allowance benefits as at March 2017.”

The standard that you walk past is the standard that you accept

To summarise, this is about neo-liberal paternalism, and human rights being exploited for financial gain, under the guise of philanthropy. The Intervention, and other recent punitive measures (including robo-debt) imposed on us, wouldn’t fly if we had a charter of human rights. We need one desperately. Indigenous Australians need treaty, the right to self-determine, and a voice in politics, similar to what New Zealand has. Because if we don’t fight for our human rights, we won’t recognise this country in a few years time.

Statistics wise, Indigenous incarceration is sky-high, Indigenous youth suicide rates have risen by 500% since 2007-2011.

All that these measures are creating is a subclass of stigmatised Australians. At a time when many countries are talking about universal-basic-income or UBI, we’re still caught up in “dole-bludger” discussions. The reality is there is less paid work out there, and that this trend will continue.

Punishing our most vulnerable and those looking for work as though they’re criminals, with drug-testing, just isn’t Australian. We don’t need to follow America with a welfare system that’s littered with “food stamp” programs, and other neo-liberal ideologies. I believe the abolished CDEP is also a model worth looking at again and not just for indigenous employment. Work-for-the-dole is just labour exploitation, and most of it is pointless when there aren’t any jobs to be found, in the first place.           

And on a final note, remember the fake youth worker? He’s still been around as a public servant, and even landed a cushy job with the Abbott government in 2014 as the country’s first ‘Threatened Species Commissioner’.

Many thanks to all of the sourced researchers, publications and artists involved in this article.

 

The NBN is on the wrong path…

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Image from smh.com.au

After the coalition won government in 2013, the then Communications Minister and now current Prime Minister of Australia, Malcolm Turnbull promised that every Australian would have access to the National Broadband Network (NBN) by the end of 2016. This clearly won’t be happening and it’s understandable with such a large piece of infrastructure to get your cost projections wrong (including old Australian Labor Party (ALP) figures). Tasmania was to be the first state to have the NBN rolled out by the end of 2015, this has now been pushed out to September 2018. The coalition’s NBN main points of difference with their plan compared to the ALP plan was to roll it out sooner, with faster download speeds and cheaper.

The original budget for the government’s version of the NBN, which is a mixture of technologies and favours FTTN (fibre to the node) over FTTH (fibre to the house) was $29.5 billion this has blown out to $56 billion and counting. Now news is coming out from the less than 15% of Australian’s that do have the NBN, that it’s providing speeds less than the days of dial up or their ADSL2+.

Mr Bell, of Belmont North near Lake Macquarie, New South Wales lays the blame squarely at the feet of Malcolm Turnbull. He says:“My children are becoming cynical about promises made by…the Prime Minister about the fast FTTN NBN roll out. Could you please make enquiries of the appropriate officers or Ministers, as to whether the FTTN NBN will provide a worse service compared to the ADSL+2 it is replacing? At the moment that seems to be the case.”

Mr Alderton also lives in Belmont and is suffering the same challenges, He says:“What a joke, peak times download speeds around 4 Mbps, that’s less than my old ADSL2.”

Mr Wallace of Valentine, near Newcastle, thinks that the problem might be widespread. He says:“There are serious problems with the rollout across Newcastle due to the Fibre to the Node model used here…thinking about switching back to ADSL2+.”

There has been much talk about the copper wire network and how much of it needs replacing to achieve Mr Turnbull’s MTM (multi-technology mix) version of the NBN instead of the ALP version with optic fibre cable. Let’s not forget either that the ALP government had already paid Telstra $11.2 billion to essentially decommission the copper and HFC (hybrid-fibre-coaxial) networks. A figure of $55 million was given by the Turnbull government to replace the copper however a leaked document from late last year suggests a 1000% blowout with the cost being more like $641 million. The figure is so large because it’s for 8.5 million metres of copper of which is enough to lay down between Perth and Pakistan and back again. There has also been Optus HFC network documents leak revealing that the government will need to replace it to achieve it’s MTM at a cost of up to $375 million.   

So far the government and Mr Turnbull have failed in their promises with their alternative NBN. One of the reasons that Mr Turnbull has used in the past for favouring FTTN, is that AT&T also favour it yet they now offer GigaPower which is a complete FTTH network. It previously offered FTTN but it also already had mainly fibre optic cables running for most of the network, with just the last mile or so with copper cables.

It’s pretty clear that a simple roll out of fibre optic cabling replacing the old copper and pay TV networks as you went, would be easier than not only resurrecting old technology but attempting to mix it together. Fair enough if it achieves higher speeds, a cheaper budget and is delivered in a timely manner but it hasn’t to date. It’s bleeding money, yet creating profit for the likes of Telstra and Optus while Australian’s that do have the NBN are now worse off than what they were to begin with. A truly connected Australia would surely inspire further innovation and instead of the focus being on the cost it’s about time that it was looked at as an investment. An investment in the future of the people of Australia.

 

 

Corporations want to profit from global health with TiSA and the TPP

I recently wrote about the TPP and now I think it’s time that we take a look at the Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA). It’s a services-only free trade agreement (FTA) that began in 2012 with exploratory discussions between Australia, US and the European Union (EU) for a year and with formal discussions beginning in early 2013. Australia, US and the EU take it in turns to chair the negotiations in Geneva. The services sector accounts for around 70% of Australia’s economic activity and accounts for around 17% of Australia’s total exports. Current countries negotiating the TiSA are Australia, Canada, Chile, Chinese Taipei, Colombia, Costa Rica, The European Union (representing its 28 Member States), Hong Kong, Iceland, Israel, Japan, Liechtenstein, Mexico, New Zealand, Norway, Pakistan, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Republic of Korea, Switzerland, Turkey and the United States. These countries also account for around 70% of global trade in services. China and Uruguay have expressed interest but have yet to be invited, it’s also worth mentioning that the Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) bloc have not been invited.

The World Trade Organization (WTO) deals with the global rules of trade between nations and the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) came into effect in April 1994, and involves all WTO members. The TiSA’s aim is to be compatible with GATS yet, set a new standard in services trade that covers all service sectors including health and public services; financial services; ICT services (including telecommunications and e-commerce); professional services; maritime transport services; air transport services; competitive delivery services; energy services; temporary entry of business persons; government procurement; and new rules on domestic regulation to ensure regulatory settings do not operate as a barrier to trade in services. The discussions are held behind closed doors as per other trade agreements, Wikileaks managed to leak draft text from the April 2014 round of discussions involving further deregulation of global financial services markets, despite the Global Financial Crisis (GFC). The draft Financial Services Annex sets rules to assist the expansion of financial multi-nationals into other nations by preventing regulatory barriers. The leaked draft also shows that the US is particularly keen on boosting cross-border data flow, allowing the uninhibited exchange of personal and financial data.

The Australian government has a web page for it’s involvement in TiSA and in the sixth April/May round that Australia also chaired, more than 140 negotiators and sector-specific government experts attended. There were advanced discussions in all areas of the negotiations, including on new and enhanced disciplines (trade rules) for financial services, domestic regulation and transparency, e-commerce and telecommunications, and maritime transport. TiSA parties also agreed to move to a negotiating text for air transport and market access negotiations also continued. The Global Services Coalition or “Team TiSA” organised a substantial industry presence in the margins of the negotiations and as the name suggests is pro the TiSA for the US. Trading in services has grown at a faster pace than trading in goods since the 1980s. The United Nations Conference on Trade And Development (UNCTAD) estimates that in 2013 global services exports reached $4.7 trillion and grew at an annual rate of 5%.  Overall, the services trade has grown by 95% since 2000. World Bank research shows that the services sector has become the dominant driver of economic growth in developing countries, delivering both GDP growth and poverty reduction.  In 2011, the services sector accounted for a massive 49% of GDP in low income countries and 47% in least developed countries. Team TiSA has every right to be cheering for it as it would benefit the US greatly. The US is the world’s largest single-country exporter and importer of services and they generate more than 75% of their national economic output. In 2013 the US exported over $681bn in services, resulting in a $231 billion surplus. Services exports in 2013 grew by $31.8 bn and services imports in 2013 grew by $12.9bn.

Australia chaired the ninth round early last December and this time it was attended by more than 200 negotiators and sector-specific government experts. Good progress was made in advancing the enhanced disciplines (trade rules) for e-commerce and telecommunications, domestic regulation and transparency, financial services, temporary entry of business persons, professional services, maritime and air transport services and delivery services. There was also further discussion of proposals on government procurement, environmental and energy services, and the facilitation of patient mobility. Parties reported on progress in bilateral market access discussions held since the September round and committed to advance these further in 2015. Besides the vagueness and secretiveness above and what it all means for every day Australians, one thing leaps out and that is the facilitation of patient mobility. Luckily another leak was sprung, the proposal was titled ‘A concept paper on health care services within TISA Negotiations’ and it states there is ‘huge untapped potential for the globalisation of healthcare services’ mainly because ‘health care services is (sic) funded and provided by state or welfare organisations and is of virtually no interest for foreign competitors due to lack of market-orientated scope for activity’. It was allegedly a proposal put forward by Turkey, and was discussed by TiSA members in the September round of discussions. And there are justifiable fears that they want to commodify health services globally as well as to promote “medical tourism” for patients.

Experts, such as Dr Odile Frank of Public Services International (PSI) say, ‘The proposal would raise health care costs in developing countries and lower quality in developed countries in Europe, North America, Australia and elsewhere’. Rosa Pavanelli, PSI General Secretary, also commented that ‘Health is a human right and is not for sale or for trade. The health system exists to keep our families safe and healthy, not to ensure the profits of large corporations’. The proposal could see patients being treated in other TiSA countries for reasons such as long waiting times in their home country or a lack of expertise for specific medical problems. The patients’s costs would need to be reimbursed through their own countries social security system, private insurance coverage or other healthcare arrangements.

The beneficiaries of this are the large health corporations and insurance companies, the ones actually behind the negotiations, that would benefit from an approximate $USD 6 trillion business. Public services are designed to provide vital social and economic necessities such as health care and education affordably, universally and on the basis of need. They exist because markets can’t produce these outcomes. Furthermore, public services are fundamental to ensuring fair competition for business, and they provide effective regulation to avoid environmental, social and economic disasters, such as the GFC and global warming. Even the most die-hard supporters of FTA’s admit that there are winners and losers.

New South Wales (NSW) Australia, Nurses and Midwives’ Association organiser Michael Whaites said: “Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Treasurer Joe Hockey have been saying that healthcare expenditure is unsustainable, but Trade Minister Andrew Robb is quietly engaged in negotiations that could potentially see scarce healthcare dollars going overseas,”. And that “You can ask whether the government is working in a co-ordinated manner, and indeed what is their real intention on the future of Medicare?” Professor Jane Kelsey, an expert on trade in services at the University of Auckland, warns that health-service-exporting countries such as Australia could find qualified staff being diverted to health export services “that often have better pay and facilities, eroding the personnel base for public facilities and perpetuating inequalities in the health care system”. Education and training investments could also be diverted “to benefit foreign healthcare users, rather than local citizens and taxpayers”.

In August 2014 the Australian Health Department called for expressions of interest from private players interested in taking over the payments of $29bn each year in health and pharmaceutical benefits currently being managed by the Human Services. Human Services Minister Marise Payne said much of the Department of Human Services (DHS) IT infrastructure for processing the payments was old and needed to be replaced and that the private sector might have cheaper solutions. The government claims it is merely testing the market with an initial expression of Interest process, not via cost analysis or efficiencies already provided. Australia Post stuck it’s hand up from the get go and other Australian corporations that are keen are – Eftpos and Stellar (Telstra) with overseas companies being Oracle, Fuji-Xerox, SAP, Accenture and Serco.

It’s hard not to feel that we are being attacked at from all angles with corporations eying off developing and developed countries public health services for profit. With an Australian government seemingly hell bent on dismantling it’s Medicare system with outsourcing payments while introducing co-payments, it’s looking clearer now as to what the current Australian government has planned. The rise of corporations and their lust for profits no matter what the cost is, has to stop. Our public services are not the latest money making scheme for corporates, whom no doubt once plundered and ruined will be nowhere to be found or at the very least held accountable for their actions. Governments must get out of bed with them and understand that they don’t know best and an even mix of private and government is required sometimes, but not all of the time. The people elect governments to govern and make decisions, we do not elect corporations. Take some advice from them but if you give them an inch they will take a mile as we have been seeing in recent years. Greed is worming it’s way in globally under the guise of competition and job creation. I find this very hard to believe for your average person, for the corporations yes, they keep getting richer and the equality gap wider. Low income countries delivering GDP growth and poverty reduction will be hardest hit and that’s not fair with many only just recovering from the GFC. The US has the most to benefit from this and all other FTA’s, this also needs to stop, they aren’t the biggest power anymore and even if they were why should they get all of the advantages? People over profits, after all you can’t make profits without us and there’s no need to ruin everyone globally once again for it.

We can not allow Free-Trade-Agreements without any transparency

Updated: 18/08/2016

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was conceived in 2003 as the Trans-Pacific Strategic Partnership Agreement TPSEP as a path to trade liberalisation in the Asia-Pacific. The original participating countries were Chile, New Zealand and Singapore with Brunei joining in 2005. In 2008 the United States of America (USA), Australia, Peru and Vietnam joined, followed on by Malaysia, Mexico, Canada and Japan. Free Trade Agreements (FTA) deal mostly with goods being imported at a certain price with certain environmental and labour standards met. What’s different about the TPP is that the treaty has 29 chapters, dealing with the whole scope of tariff and agricultural quota removal and market access on sensitive products, but in particular agricultural goods. It also includes provisions over non-tariff issues such as intellectual property rights, the environment, state-owned enterprises, and investment.

Japan was the last to join in 2013, as agriculture as well as the auto industry have long been a sticking point in Japanese trade liberalisation and had held up the TPP negotiations with the USA. However agricultural reforms made by Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, has tipped the power of balance back into the governments favour and away from Japan’s most powerful farm lobby, the Japan Agriculture Cooperative. Japan offered to import more rice from the USA while keeping existing tariffs in place, and the USA agreed to stop demanding that Japan ease its car safety standards. Progress was also made on issues such as state-owned enterprises, environmental protection, and investment. This not only paves the way for greater market liberalisation and deregulation in Japanese agriculture but was meant to enable Mr Obama’s plan to “fast track” push for Congress approval to conclude the TPP before the end of his Presidency.

What is of the most concern is the provisions over not only the aforementioned non-tariff issues of intellectual property rights, the environment, state-owned enterprises, and investment but the Investor State Dispute Settlements provisions (ISDS). ISDS allows multinational corporations to sue governments if they’re deemed not to be acting in their best “interests”. It can potentially place limits on governments being able to develop their domestic laws and policies in areas such as public health, patents on medicine, the environment, food labeling, Internet use and privacy and even local media content. Australia had a long-running investor-state dispute with Philip Morris Asia, due to the introduction of the ‘Tobacco Plain Packaging Act 2011′ in 2011. The laws were introduced by the former Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s Australian Labor Party (ALP) government as a health measure but Philip Morris Asia amongst the many breaches, believes that it infringes their intellectual property. Previous ALP and Liberal National Party governments had in the past only included ISDS in trade agreements with developing countries that didn’t have any investments in Australia and they were not included in the US-Australia FTA. American corporations are the most frequent users of ISDS and the safeguard clauses that countries employ to protect themselves in FTA’s can and have been re-interpreted and over-turned through the arbitration process. Philip Morris International Inc in an Australian case for example, challenged the tobacco plain packaging legislation under a 1993 Agreement between the Government of Australia and the Government of Hong Kong for the Promotion and Protection of Investments.

Even where corporations do lose they have dragged governments through lengthy and expensive legal processes with dispute settlement cases that are heard by tribunals of three private-sector lawyers. The tribunals tend to be more concerned with assessing potential damage to corporate investments rather than the protection of the government’s or public’s interest. In December 2015 Australia won its four year international legal battle with Phillip Morris Asia and there are now currently 608 ISDS cases globally. More than $3bn has been paid by out governments, or taxpayers, to corporations under existing US trade and investment agreements alone. African countries are increasingly becoming involved in ISDS cases with the majority of these in the gas, oil and mining sectors. According to the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID), out of the ISDS cases registered with them until 2014, 26% were concentrated in the oil, gas and mining sectors. It was 35% for the year 2014 alone, compared to 2000 when there were only three pending cases. Investors have challenged many government measures such as: licenses that are revoked in mining, telecommunications and tourism; alleged breaches of investment contracts; the withdrawl of previously granted subsidies and changes to domestic regulatory frameworks in gas, nuclear energy, the marketing of gold and currency regulations.

An examples of an ISDS case against a government is one from Canada by Lone Pine Resources which filed a $250m lawsuit against the Canadian government when Quebec placed a moratorium on it and banned drilling and fracking processes for oil and gas underneath the St. Lawrence River for an environmental evaluation. “Based on the principle of precaution, the Quebec government’s response to the concerns of its population is appropriate and legitimate,” said Martine Châtelain, president of Eau secours! (The Quebec based Coalition for the responsible management of water). “No companies should be allowed to sue a State when it implements sovereign measures to protect water and the common goods for the sake of our ecosystems and the health of our peoples” Ms Châtelain added.

And there is the case of Eli Lilly and Company when an American global pharmaceutical company (and it’s fifth biggest), filed a $500m law suit against Canada. It was for allegedly violating its obligations to foreign investors under the North American FTA for allowing its domestic courts to invalidate patents for two of its drugs. Canadian courts had found that there was a lack of evidence supporting the drug’s alleged benefits.

According to Forbes in 2013 the biggest profit margins produced be USA corporations are in the pharmaceuticals. In 2013, US pharmaceutical Pfizer, the world’s largest drug company, made a 42% profit margin. As one industry veteran put it: “I wouldn’t be able to justify [those kinds of margins].” In the UK that year, there was widespread anger when the industry regulator predicted energy companies’ profit margins would grow from 4% to 8% for the year. In 2014, five pharmaceutical companies made a profit margin of 20% or more, these were – Pfizer, Hoffmann-La Roche, AbbVie, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and Eli Lilly. And in 2015 Johnson & Johnson was named the world’s largest drug and biotech company, edging out Pfizer and Swiss company Novartis once again. In 2015 Johnson & Johnson made $16.3bn in profits, held $131bn in assets and it’s market value was $276bn.

The problem isn’t just with the massive amounts of profiteering but the fact that the drug companies spend far more on marketing drugs than on developing them. Johnson & Johnson’s total revenue for 2013 for example was $71.3bn with a profit of 13.8%, it spent 8.2% on research and development and 17.5% was spent on sales and marketing.  Drug patents in the US are usually awarded for 20 years, but 10-12 of those years are spent developing it at a cost of up to $2.5bn, leaving eight to ten years to make money before the formula can be taken up by generic drug companies. Once this happens, sales fall by over 90%. Joshua Owide, director of healthcare industry dynamics at research company GlobalData, explains, “Unlike other sectors, brand loyalty goes out the window when patents expire.” This is why pharmaceutical companies go to such extraordinary lengths to extend their patents, a process known as “evergreening”, employing “floors full of lawyers” for this express purpose, one industry insider has said. And with a drug raking in $3bn a quarter, even a one month extension can be worth a lot of money. Some drug companies, including the UK’s GSK, have been accused of more underhand tactics, such as paying generics to delay the release of their cheaper alternatives. This is a win for both industries, as it has been said that the loss of the big pharmaceuticals far outweighs the generic industries revenue.

The source of contention between Australia and the US to seal the TPP deal now in 2016, is the difference in the monopoly period (the time-frame that it can’t be taken up by generic companies) for medicines or biologics between the two countries. Biologics are “next generation” drugs and Australia’s time-frame to protect medical intellectual property is five years whereas the US had been bargaining for eight years. Meaning that no generic or cheaper drugs could come onto the market for nearly a decade. Last month TPP supporter, US Senator Orrin Hatch, accused Australia of trying to steal American medicine patents and said that he wants it to be changed to twelve years.

The former Abbott government and the current Turnbull government have an appetite for signing FTA’s with their eyes on more with India, Indonesia and an Asian trade deal to rival the TPP called the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. The TPP has been many years in the making and has been fraught with difficult negotiations that could impact on us really hard in an already uncertain economic environment. The secrecy in our Australian political environment in particular around FTA’s and the public’s growing unease with them needs to be heeded. If the government won’t listen we need the opposition, independents and the senate to come together and put the countries future and needs first, no matter how big the opportunities are for for a few investors in this country. Can you imagine what could be in store for us if we allow multinational corporations and trade ministers to ultimately decide our economies, laws and policies? With the global spend on medicines projected to be worth up to $1.2 trillion for 2017, low global growth and profit hungry corporations, the stakes are too high.