Category Archives: Politics

Letter to the Foreign Minister and Shadow Foreign Minister

This letter was sent to the Australian Foreign Minister, Bob Carr, and Shadow Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, on behalf of myself and 19 Australian scientists.

Dear Hon. Mr. Carr and Hon. Mrs. Bishop,

Recently Omid Kokabee, an Iranian graduate student in physical optics, was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment in Iran for "communicating with a hostile government" after spending time abroad at the Institute for Photonic Science in Barcelona and the University of Texas in Austin. He had already spent 15 months in prison pre-trial. He has consistently denied all allegations and no credible evidence was presented against him in his court proceedings. His field of work does not include nuclear physics.

As a group of concerned Australian scientists, dedicated to the ideas of open science, freedom of travel and open scientific collaboration and communication, we are writing to you to request that you use all diplomatic means at your disposal to ensure that Mr. Kokabee receives a fair trial.

Australia has a proud history of fostering open scientific collaboration and communication, and we have many high quality Iranian scientists working in Australia. It is therefore important that a precedent be set both domestically and at the international level that prosecuting scientists, who are neither activists nor involved in sensitive government work, is unacceptable and undermines scientific progress and the notion of a free society. Iranian scientists contributing to science in Australia, of which there are many, should never have to live in the fear that upon returning home they may be prosecuted.

We sincerely hope you will review the details of this case and use your status as Foreign Minister and Shadow Foreign Minister respectively to push for Iran to give Mr. Kokabee a fair trial.

A Nature Magazine report of the story can be found at http://www.nature.com/news/iranian-physicist-sentenced-to-prison-1.10642

Sincerely,

Unions – Vandals & Extortionists

The recent debacle with Qantas has rekindled my thoughts about the union movement in general. I firmly believe that unions are, in general, a negative influence on our society and many of their activities amount to blackmail and economic vandalism. While there are some legitimate roles for unions, such as providing advice to members and legal representation when the need arises, the bulk of contemporary union activity centres around industrial action, or, as I like to call it, extortion.

When someone gets a job at a business, they agree to do a certain amount of work for a certain amount of pay. It is not an agreement entered into solely on one side. It is not an agreement forced onto one side by the other. It is a voluntary, mutual agreement. I find it outrageous that, after entering an agreement voluntarily, that one side (in this case the unions) retrospectively decide that actually, on second thought, they want more than they agreed to. Then, to achieve that aim, they engage in strike action, with the aim of blackmailing the business by threatening them with bankruptcy if they don't acquiesce. This is extortion.

Imagine that you hired someone to help clean your house, and you agreed to pay them $10 an hour to help you out. Then, a few weeks later they turn up outside your house with a bunch of mates, threatening signs and refusing to work unless you agree to $20 an hour. Would you (a) give them $20 an hour, or (b) fire them an hire someone else who is willing to do the work they agreed to do? This example precisely reflects what's happening in the union movement around the world.

You might say, why not give them $20 an hour - they'd be better off, it's only fair? The answer is, simply, that it drives unemployment. Why employ one person for $20 an hour when you can employ two for $10? Thus, the activities of unions effectively act as a driving force for unemployment.

Those in support of unions frequently claim that unions are there to represent workers. This couldn't be further from the truth. Unions do not represent workers, they represent paying members. Therefore, those who are not represented by the unions, and I'm specifically referring to the unemployed, get no representation whatsoever and lose out. I'd rather have solidarity with someone who is unemployed and priced out of a job, than someone with a job and a comfy lifestyle, who simply wants more.

Indeed, it is questionable whether union activity even benefits the members. When people earn more money without a corresponding increase in productivity, people have more money with which to buy goods, but the amount of goods hasn't changed. This is inflation. When inflation occurs the RBA responds by increasing interest rates, which means that everyone is paying more on their mortgage, more on their car loan, more on their credit card, and no one is better off.

Some hardline critics of unions advocate banning unions as a solution to the problem. This solution involves taking away people's freedom of association. So, how do we prevents these kinds of activities without taking away freedom? By giving more. Specifically, employers should be allowed to discriminate against employees on the basis of union membership. They should have the right to say "we'll employ you, provided that you don't join the union and engage in strike action", and negotiate these terms into the employment contract. Secondly, because industrial action amounts to extortion, employers should be free to fire employees engaging in that kind of action and litigate for losses. This solution addresses the problem, without depriving anyone of inalienable rights.

I hope the outcome with Qantas strengthens the public's skepticism of the union movement and opens people's eyes to the true nature of collective action. It's time society recognised the true face of unions. They are not there to help people out or make sound economic decisions. They are there to accumulate power into the hands of union bosses and thugs so they can later run for public office and become a minister (or undemocratically overthrow a Prime Minister). This needs to stop.

In defence of Israel

Every country is deserved of criticism. I've yet to find a country whose domestic and foreign policies I agree with in their entirety. As such, it is entirely justified to level criticism when criticism is due. What I object to however is criticism that is mounted in a highly discriminatory and ad-hoc manner. I have Israel in mind.

There are most certainly Israeli government policies of which I am critical. I criticise the Israeli government for not being as pro-active as it could be in regard to finding a solution for peace with the Palestinians. What I object to however is exaggerated and discriminatory criticism. I find, ever increasingly, particularly amongst the so-called 'intellectual elite' in Australian society (i.e. academics with an overinflated sense of self-importance, who consider themselves the pinnacle of mankind's intellectual achievement) that criticism of Israel is disproportionate and rife, hypocritical and downright discriminatory. Sure, I don't agree with everything that Benjamin Netanyahu says or does, but does this really justify a widespread, concerted international effort to criticise, demonise and undermine Israel? Aren't there other countries more deserving of criticism than Israel? Why is there an all-out effort to attack Israel, on the basis of territorial disputes and counter-terrorism efforts, when there are so many other wrongs in the world? Why do we have organisations like this one, why are there proposed labour union-sponsored academic boycotts in the UK, and why is our own Australian electorate of Marrickville proposing a total boycott of all Israeli products, when there are so many others more worthy of criticism? The answer is, very plainly, that it's discrimination and racism. People hate Israel. There, I said it - people hate Israel. Do the same organisations, unions and local councils suggest that we boycott China for oppressing Tibetans? No. Do they boycott Australia, the UK and the US for the wars against Iraq and Afghanistan (which I know they disagree with)? No. Do they boycott Iran for persecuting the minority Bahai faith, or Saudi Arabia for executing homosexuals and stoning so-called 'adulterers' (i.e. rape victims)? No. When criticism is due, give it, but keep it in proportion and keep it fair. The international movement against Israel is not founded on fact and objectivity - it is founded on hatred and discrimination. I don't agree with everything Israel says and does, but the same applies to every other country on Earth. Singling out a single country, and repeatedly attacking them for policies we disagree with, while ignoring the huge injustices in so many other countries is discrimination, plain and simple.

In a region of the Earth ruled by tyrants, dictators and Islamist fundamentalists, Israel is the only modern, Western-style, progressive, parliamentary democracy. Israel is a multicultural society, with a huge Muslim minority (about 20%) , and even takes a world-leading social stance by recognising same-sex marriage. Do they get credit for this? No. Instead her critics choose to focus all their efforts on degrading her and insinuating that she is a racist apartheid country, while ignoring her strengths, and completely forgetting the injustices in so many other countries including their own.

If Israel is deserved of a boycott for her attempts to protect herself against terrorism, then so is Australia for its participation in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. If Israel is criticised as an 'apartheid country', then we should look at our own - Israel has far larger ethnic minority groups than Australia does, all of whom have full democratic rights.

Israel is more like our own country than any other in that region of the World. Yet, there is an enormous international movement, led by the radical left and the 'intellectual elite', to demonise that country. Before you make a concerted effort to alienate Israel, take a long, hard look at your own country.

If you gave me a choice to live in any country in the Middle Eastern region, I know where I'd prefer to live, without a shadow of a doubt - and it wouldn't be the country where they amputate my hands for opposing the rulers or stone to death my wife for being raped.

Marijuana law reform

An issue which I feel very strongly about, but which for some reason I've never blogged about before is the legalisation of marijuana. While I don't advocate marijuana use, in my mind there is no moral justification for the criminalisation of marijuana for numerous reasons:

1. Marijuana has been systematically shown to be less physically harmful and less addictive than both alcohol and tobacco, both of which are legal. The following plot comes from Wikipedia (see article for reference), which shows affinity for dependence and the physical harm of many common drugs. Notice that marijuana is less harmful than both alcohol and tobacco on both axes.

2. If people want to harm themselves, this is a personal choice and individuals need to decide for themselves whether they are willing to accept the risks. This is exactly our policy on alcohol and tobacco, so why not for marijuana? Tobacco, which is consistently rated as more harmful than marijuana, including numerous fatal illnesses, is tolerated on exactly this basis - it's a personal choice and people need to make the decision for themselves.

3. Marijuana use does not cause violent crime and anti-social behaviour in the way that alcohol, heroin and crystal meth do and therefore there is no moral justification for treating marijuana users in the same way as violent criminals by throwing them into jail.

4. The effects of jail are far more heinous than marijuana use. When you throw someone into jail you destroy their lives - their career, financially, their family, and you leave them with a criminal record, ensuring that they will never have a decent job again. This is far worse than the effects of even heavy marijuana use.

5. It's totalitarian for a government to trot into people's living rooms and tell them what they can and can't do in the privacy of their own homes. This is on par with the anti-sodomy laws of countries like Singapore.

6. Studies have consistently found that legalisation of marijuana does not result in a noticeable increase in marijuana use. Most notably, a recent study in Portugal found that decriminalisation of marijuana did not lead to an increase in marijuana use. Additionally, Holland, which has the most liberal marijuana laws in the world, has lower teen marijuana usage rates than Australia, the UK and the US, all of which have relatively tough marijuana laws.

7. In recorded medical history there has never been a single recorded case of marijuana overdose. Experts believe that to overdose on marijuana would require smoking several kilograms of marijuana, which is impossible. Furthermore, marijuana does not cause physical dependence - heavy alcohol use does.

8. Marijuana has many proven medical applications, including in the treatment of eating disorders, depression, mania, bipolar disorder, anxiety and panic disorders, loss of appetite associated with chemotherapy or HIV medication, and pain relief. Before the invention of aspirin (which causes thousands of deaths worldwide each year) in the 19th century, marijuana was a popular and effective form of pain relief.

9. Education, rather than criminalisation, is the correct approach to discouraging marijuana use. This is what we do with alcohol and tobacco - every cigarette packet contains a health warning, and there are countless media ads highlighting the dangers of alcohol and tobacco use. In the last decades the percentage of Australians who smoke has been drastically reduced. It's not because of criminalisation, but because of our investment into educational and awareness campaigns.

10. Legalisation of marijuana could potentially contribute billions of dollars to the budget if it were taxed in the way that alcohol and tobacco are. If this money were invested into education, rehabilitation and health, the benefits would be enormous.

11. By removing marijuana from the black market and bringing it above ground, organised crime groups would lose a major source of their revenue, reducing criminal activity.

12. We have spent billions of dollars wasting law enforcement and judicial effort on enforcing petty cannabis laws. Instead of wasting billions of dollars, why not gain billions in tax revenue.

In summary, I believe that criminalisation of marijuana is excessive, counterproductive and downright immoral. It is wrong to treat people as criminals for doing something in the privacy of their own homes which hurts no one other than themselves - marijuana use is a victimless crime. The Australian government should immediately reconsider its approach to marijuana in light of well established scientific and medical facts. The social, economic and individual benefits would be substantial.

Public transport?

I never figured out why so many of my economically conservative friends are opposed to investing in public transport. After all, we subsidise private transport in the form of roads, bridges, highways and public parking. Public transport takes load off this infrastructure, which means we need to invest less into it. This could make heavy investment into public transport revenue positive. Why upgrade a city road to half a dozen lanes to reduce congestion, when the allocation of a single bus lane is cheaper? Some question the compatibility of this view with my generally pro-market, Libertarian-leaning views. However, these views are completely consistent. Libertarians believe in reducing tax-payer burden and public transport is one of the few areas where tax-payer spending can reduce the overall tax burden.

Why I am opposed to an Australian Bill of Rights

There has been a lot of discussion in the Australian media recently about the introduction of an Australian Bill of Rights. Such a bill would, presumably, enshrine into the Constitution freedoms such as freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of association, and other freedoms reminiscent of what appears in bills such as the United States' Bill of Rights. While the aforementioned freedoms are certainly essential in a modern democracy, enshrining them into the Constitution brings with it serious problems.

Under Australian law, the High Court is the sole entity with the right to interpret the Constitution. In other words, whatever is the interpretation of the Constitution by the High Court, is the final word. This represents a significant shift in the balance of power. Take for example the freedom of speech. While this is clearly a fundamental right in any credible democracy, it may have limits. For example, should religious extremists be able to use 'freedom of speech' as an excuse for using their influence to incite followers to conduct extremist actions such as hate crimes or terrorist offenses. While it is debatable whether freedom of speech should allow such actions, the point is that it must remain debatable. In other words, the public should be free to debate this issue, form a consensus, and pressure the elected representatives to pass motions based on this consensus. On the other hand, with a constitutionally enshrined freedom of speech, it becomes no longer a debatable issue which can be influenced by elected representatives or the public, but instead becomes an issue which is decided upon by unelected judges, who are accountable to no one, and whose rulings become the uncontested rule of law.

A good example of the pitfalls of constitutional bills of rights is the 2nd amendment in the United States' Bill of Rights - 'The right to keep and bear arms'. 'Arms' is a rather generic term and can be used to refer to anything from pocket knives to fully automatic assault rifles. Gun laws are a very important political and social issue. However, under the US Bill of Rights the interpretation of this amendment is left solely in the hands of the justices. In other words, debate on this issue in the House or Senate is effectively stifled since neither have the right to influence this - only the Supreme Court does. As a result, it is presently acceptable for individuals to posses fully automatic military assault rifles, and neither the House nor the Senate can do anything about it. In a sensible democracy, issues as important as this need to be debated, and ultimately decided by elected representatives, not by unaccountable justices whose views cannot be overruled by the democratic process.

By far the most striking example of the undeserved shift of power away from elected representatives and into the judiciary, is the Roe vs. Wade decision by the US Supreme Court in 1973. In this ruling the Supreme Court ruled that a woman's right to abortion is protected via the right to privacy of the Fourteenth Amendment. This has become one of the most cited and debated rulings in US history. Abortion is an extremely important, contentious and dividing issue in Western societies, and it needs to be debated and acted upon accordingly. However, as was evident in this case, justices sometimes feel the need to take an activist position and interpret the constitution in ways it was never intended to be. Whether you are for or against abortion is not the issue. The point is that abortion is an extremely important topic that needs to be publicly debated and ultimately decided upon by the Parliament, not by the activist judiciary.

To illustrate the fact that a Bill of Rights is not absolute and is open to interpretation by the judiciary, consider a very good example - once again the US Bill of Rights. In the hands of the judiciary the US Bill of Rights did nothing to prevent slavery, nor did it prevent segregation, nor did it prevent the circumvention of habeus corpus during the War on Terror, despite the fact that under a literal interpretation of this Bill such acts would be outlawed.

A final objection to a Bill of Rights, is that it is not flexible - it cannot evolve with evolving social views. What is enshrined in the Constitution is essentially permanent, unless a referendum takes place, which is very rare. In other words, while the views of society may change, the views of the Parliament may change, but what is enshrined in the Constitution does not.

In summary, a constitutional Bill of Rights, by definition, shifts legislative power away from the Parliament and into the hands of the judiciary, which is not elected, not accountable, and whose rulings cannot be overturned. If a politician implements a bad policy, they can be voted out at the next election. When a judge makes a bad ruling, they cannot be. A Bill of Rights is not flexible, and therefore cannot change as social views change. This is a dangerous situation and represents a complete attack on our democratic process and principles. Australia has an impeccable history of allowing freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of association and protecting the rights and views of minority groups - historically, is the US better in these regards? As such there is no convincing reason to shift power away from Parliament and into the hands of the judiciary. Shifting around the power balance, in a system that has worked so well for a hundred years, is a precarious and pointless thing to do.