Bookmark to read posts by John Menadue and guest bloggers as they are published (daily).
Bookmark to read Fairness, Opportunity and Security policy series edited by Michael Keating and John Menadue.


Peter Johnstone. Bishop Robinson at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse

“the major obstacle to a better response from the Church has been the Vatican.”  

Bishop Geoffrey Robinson

On Monday 24 August 2015, Bishop Geoffrey Robinson spent a day in the witness box at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. He showed the integrity one would hopefully expect from a Christian bishop in focussing on the interests of children ahead of the institutional interests of the Church. He was there to assist the Commission in its understanding of the Catholic Church’s approach to the scandal of clerical child sexual abuse. Bishop Robinson was transparent in his formal statement, in his responses to questions, and in the multitude of accompanying exhibits. His evidence provides new and worrying insights into the decision-making processes of the Australian hierarchy and the Roman curia. It is clear from Robinson’s frank evidence that much of the institutional Church’s actions have been focussed largely on the reputation of the Church at the expense of the protection of children from sexual abuse.

Two of the exhibits are written advice to the bishops from Dr Nicholas Tonti-Filippini, Australia’s first hospital ethicist, recently deceased, and commonly viewed in the Church as highly intelligent, of great integrity, and fully committed to Church doctrine. Tonti-Filippini’s advice, as early as 1 August 1990, made a damning assessment of the Australian bishops’ 1988 attempt at a ‘Protocol for dealing with allegations of criminal behaviour’. He criticised that protocol as concerned with ‘responsibilities’ such as the “defence of good reputation and image of individuals . . . and appearing to be impartial” (T-P’s italics), but “the need to protect victims of crime and to prevent further injury or injustice to them are not mentioned” (his italics). Similarly, he noted “the value of seeking to ensure that a criminal is brought to justice is not mentioned.”

In a further exhibit, a letter from Tonti-Filippini of 22 August 1996 some six years later, he objects that a Church spokesperson has been publicly “referring favourably” to the 1988 Protocol ignoring his earlier warnings, and that current responses were putting “the short term interests of the Church ahead of the care of the alleged victim.” He reiterated his advice as to “how damaging it would be when, as would be inevitable, this apparent legerdemain (trickery) were exposed.” This failure to act appropriately and quickly is repeatedly illustrated in Bishop Robinson’s evidence, as the institution is forced to respond to responsible exposure in the media. An example is the Holy See’s continuing opposition to criminal reporting of paedophiles, except where failure to report could risk prosecution of a bishop!

Bishop Robinson claimed in his formal written statement to the Royal Commission that, however much the Australian bishops failed over the last thirty years, “the major obstacle to a better response from the Church has been the Vatican.” Bishop Robinson stated clearly his dissatisfaction with the role of the Holy See in dealing with clerical child sexual abuse, both the poor governance including the demands of secrecy, and their appalling ignorance of the nature of the crime, even to the extent that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith suggested that paedophilia be eliminated from the list of the more serious crimes.

It seems clear that the Royal Commission is recognising that they cannot adequately deal with the Catholic Church’s failings in Australia alone in its complicity in the protection of paedophiles, without addressing the issue of the universal Church’s dysfunctional governance from Rome. Bishop Robinson has demonstrated the lack of public accountability and due process at every level of Church decision-making. This even involves unjustifiable conflicts between canon law and the civil law of legitimate democratic governments and, notably, a failure to listen to the people of the Church.

Bishop Robinson is particularly direct in his criticism of Pope St John Paul II’s response to clerical child sexual abuse and his failure to provide real leadership, noting “we still haven’t had that kind of leadership not even from Francis.” He illustrated the kind of leadership needed in a powerful ex tempore statement in his oral evidence:

Imagine that way back in, say, something like 1987 – to pick a date out of the air – imagine that (John Paul II) had come to the microphone in St Peter’s Square one Sunday morning, with a vast crowd in front of him, and said something like this . . . “I received a report during the week that shocked me the core. It tells of widespread sexual abuse of minors by priests and religious. . . . I call on every bishop in the world to act with me. We’re going to deal with these people. There’s no place for them in the church. We’re going to reach out to victims. We’re going to look at anything in the church which may have contributed and we’re going to get rid of it and I call on every bishop to work with me in this.”

Bishop Robinson’s clear inference was that Pope Benedict XVI could have taken similar action with an apology for not acting sooner. It is not too late for Pope Francis to provide decisive leadership: “to look at anything in the church which may have contributed”. This must include a commitment to radical reform of the Church’s dysfunctional governance – structure, clericalist culture and canon law – that has resulted in the criminal abuse of children throughout the world caused by the institutional Church itself.

Bishop Robinson is a witness of note, being a retired bishop who played a leading role in the development of the Church’s early response in Australia to clerical child sexual abuse. He has proven his own commitment to the protection of children and the exposure of the Church’s dysfunctional governance by public statements and writings. His two books on these issues are Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church and For Christ’s Sake End Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church for Good. Bishop Robinson taught canon law at the Catholic Institute of Sydney and is a past president of the Canon Law Society of Australia and New Zealand.

A question: Would any serving Australian bishops be prepared to further assist the Royal Commission understand the real nature of the Church’s governance rejecting, as Bishop Robinson has, the undoubted institutional pressures that arise from that dysfunctional governance and that resulted in the scandal of cover-up and protection of paedophiles.


Peter Johnstone is President, Catholics for Renewal,

Posted in Guest bloggers, Religion and Faith | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Brian McNair. News Corp and the future of public service media.

I’ve been teaching students in Hong Kong about the relationship between politics and the media, and wanted to illustrate the sometimes problematic relationship between media and power. So I showed them Robert Peston’s BBC Panorama documentary about the “industrial-scale” criminality of Rupert Murdoch’s UK red-tops in the era of Andy Coulson and Rebekkah Brooks (* on Friday August 28 Rebekkah was named as CEO for News Corp in the UK).

Like most people with even a passing interest in the part played by News Corporation in British politics, I remember exactly what I was doing when the scandal broke in 2011 and the sense of a seemingly indestructible media behemoth crumbling into chaos and ruin before our eyes. I had been researching and teaching about the News empire for more than two decades by then, frequently using it as a case study of how at least some privately owned media organisations abuse their power in pursuit of competitive success and political influence.

While I always took care to acknowledge Murdoch’s positive contribution to sustaining the idea that journalism is important and must be invested in if it is to survive the digital age, the deeply unethical behaviour of The Sun in relation to such events as the Hillsborough stadium disaster and the sinking of the Belgrano during the Falklands War were and remain classic examples of the excesses of British tabloid journalism.

Murdoch’s use of his media to influence and shape the democratic political process in all the markets where he operates was illustrated by reference to Fox News, The Sun and other News Corp outlets which operate as what the late newspaper proprietor Robert Maxwell called a “megaphone” for the Murdochian world view and political agenda.

So the phone hacking scandal of 2011 was a genuinely shocking thing to behold.

Peston’s documentary was a reminder of that moment, which at the time was generally regarded as pivotal in British political history. Where senior politicians of both Labour and Conservative parties had for decades “queued up to kiss the shoes” of Rupert Murdoch and his tabloid editors (as investigative journalist Nick Davies put it to Peston), suddenly no–one wanted to be his friend anymore.

The hitherto unspoken truth (unspoken among politicians who were its beneficiaries, that is) that the relationship between the Murdoch media and the political elite in Britain had become undemocratic and incestuous became the new common sense overnight.

Among the many adverse impacts of the scandal on News Corporation was the collapse of its bid to buy the remaining 61% of the shares for BSkyB that it didn’t own – a deal that was by now attracting heat for both the Murdochs and a government that had seemed eager to wave the multi-billion deal through despite massive public opposition.

There was talk of prosecutions in the US, where corporate criminality such as the bribery of public officials is taken very seriously. That never came to pass, but few doubted that the reputation of Rupert Murdoch and the corporate culture which he had presided over for more than 40 years had been seriously – perhaps terminally – wounded.

Rupert resurgent

That view has turned out to be well wide of the mark. Once again News Corporation is on the offensive against its old enemy, the BBC, lobbying a second-term Cameron government – armed now with a majority in the House of Commons and thus empowered to act with greater freedom than was possible in the five years of coalition – to shrink the corporation.

Once again there are reports of Murdoch’s privileged access to the corridors of power, as in The Independent in July:

George Osborne is under pressure to reveal if he held a private meeting with Rupert Murdoch days before the Treasury imposed a £650m budget cut on the BBC. Whitehall speculation about the alleged meeting – which would raise fresh questions about the closeness of the relationship between the Conservatives and the Murdoch empire – has prompted Labour to write to Mr Osborne demanding he release full details of his contact with the News Corp boss.

It looks like business as usual, then, for a global media baron used to commanding the attention of political leaders and wielding his power to influence policymaking on the future of the BBC.

Whose side are you on?

In Australia, where I live and work – and where the phone-hacking scandal had little impact on News Corporation’s activities – a similar offensive is underway against the ABC.

In Australia, as in the UK, News Corporation is allied to a right-of-centre government which regards the public sector in general, and public service media in particular, as hostile to its goals and ripe for “reform”.

The Australian, News Corp’s flagship title down under (like The Times and Sunday Times in the UK), maintains a steady flow of anti-public service media reportage and commentary, criticising with boring predictability executive salaries, or the alleged bias of its news department, or indeed anything that can be made to appear excessive and un-Australian.

After the Zaky Mallah affair, Prime Minister Tony Abbott asked of the ABC: “whose side are you on?” In a similar way, News Corporation likes to present the ABC as a cultural fifth column, its commentators regularly demanding that it be reduced to a “market failure” broadcaster – and in the process, coincidentally enough, allowing News the opportunity to become even more dominant in the Australian media landscape than it already is.

On this issue, as on many others, Murdoch’s media act as cheerleaders for the Abbott government.

I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but the ferocity of the campaigns against public service media in Australia and the UK could easily be read as more than coincidence. In both countries News Corp press seek to undermine the funding models of public service media, and their right to produce popular entertainment programming such as The Voice. This has been a decades long campaign for News Corp in the UK, and after the Jimmy Savile scandal and other dents to its reputation, the BBC is more vulnerable than it has ever been.

The ABC, one might argue, is in a stronger defensive position than the BBC. While the latter now faces five years of majority Conservative government, Abbott must go to the polls in September 2016 at the latest – and repeated opinion polls show a deep affection among Australians for the ABC.

Tampering with Auntie would be politically risky. The real danger will come if the Coalition is re-elected with a comfortable majority, giving Abbott the freedom of manoeuvre now enjoyed by Cameron in the UK.

In the meantime, the BBC and ABC must hold their nerve, and trust in the capacity of the publics they serve to continue recognising the importance of the role they play and the excellent value for money which they deliver. Both the BBC and ABC cost the individual license fee or taxpayer much less than a subscription to Foxtel or BSkyB. Even the purchase of one daily newspaper in either country for a year exceeds the cost per person of funding public service media and the wealth of content they deliver on TV, radio and online.

Supporters of public service media are familiar with these arguments, but in both Australia and the UK they must be made and made again, forcefully and with confidence.

To lose the BBC and the ABC, or to see them reduced to a pale shadow of public service media – think PBS and NPR in the United States – would be a cultural disaster from which there would be no recovery that was not directed by News Corporation and other private media interests.

Brian McNair is Professor of Journalism, Media and Communication at Queensland University of Technology. This article first appeared in The Conversation on August 29, 2015.

Posted in Guest bloggers, Media, Politics | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

John Menadue. Don’t add to the disaster.

The government is considering adding to the disaster in the Middle East by instructing the RAAF to bomb targets in Syria.

Will we ever learn from our past mistakes?

In supporting the US invasion of Iraq, Australia helped trigger the tragedy that is now unfolding. Perhaps a million lives have been lost and refugees are flooding in their millions into adjoining countries and Europe. Our involvement has triggered both ethnic and sectarian conflict. Does Tony Abbott ever stop and think about his role in the Howard Government that helped sow the seeds of this disaster?

In considering the Middle East, Tony Abbott has two clear objectives that have nothing to do with our national interest. The first is to wedge the opposition and make it appear weak on security. He has instructed his private office to look for regular and if possible daily opportunities to highlight security threats. He wants to make the Canning bi-election a khaki election. Secondly he is determined to show that he is the most loyal ally of the US. He even asked the Americans to ask us to step up our role in the Middle East. He is quite unwilling to acknowledge that we are tying ourselves to a country that is perpetually at war. That is putting us at great risk.

The West is not winning the war in the Middle East. The history of foreign intervention in the Middle East is one of loss and ignominy. Just ask the Russians.

There is serious legal doubt about extending our role into Syria. The Saudis, Emirates and Qataris are not contributing to the campaign against IS. Many Saudis privately support and fund IS. Having suffered defeat as a result of the intervention by the US and its allies many Sunni in Iraq now support IS. None of our neighbours in South East Asia is involved.

The commander of our joint operations in the Middle East Vice-Admiral David Johnson has told us that bombing Syria will not be a ‘game changer’

Turkey, one of our ‘allies’ in the area, is playing a double game. Despite its alleged opposition to IS, Turkey has remained a major transit country for foreign fighters, including Australians, to join IS in Syria and Iraq. Turkey helps fund IS through large purchases of oil. Turkey is now conducting aerial strikes on IS in Iraq and Syria, but it is using these strikes against IS as a cover for much heavier aerial attacks on Kurdish positions. It is done to play to the domestic hostility to the Kurds living in Turkey. Yet the Kurds are the most effective military opposition on the ground to IS.

We keep compounding the disaster we triggered in the first place. We cannot undo what we helped create, but we should not make it worse by allowing ourselves to be goaded by IS. Only a diplomatic and political resolution is possible. In any resolution Iran will be a key player.

We would make a much greater contribution to wellbeing if we agreed to take 10,000 people displaced from Syria and provide refuge for them in Australia as we did for Kosovans in 1999.

For an outline of the mess, see the link below to an article in the New York Times by Roger Cohen.  Middle East Zen

Posted in Defence/Security, Foreign Affairs, Politics | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Mother Merkel and 800,000 refugees

With its sometimes dark history, Germany is facing a great test with the unprecedented arrival of asylum seekers .There are conflicting signs of great generosity, disappointment, anger, hope, mistrust and honesty. A great drama is being played out.

With the support of her political opponents in the Social Democratic Party, Angela Merkel of the Conservative Christian Democratic Union is grappling with courage and determination a trial for the heart of Germany. She warned ‘If Europe fails on the question of refugees, its close connection with universal civil rights will be destroyed’. 

In an article in Spiegel Online on 31 August, staff correspondents wrote of the ‘Dark Germany and the Bright Germany.  Which side will prevail under the strain of refugees.’

They said

How long will the alliance of reason hold up? … As many as 800,000 refugees and migrants may arrive in Germany this year. … and even if we don’t really know how things will develop in coming years, one thing is certain;  the numbers aren’t likely to drop appreciably … it is also certain that the newcomers will change our country. Germans have only recently become used to the idea that they live in a country of immigration and now, the next illusion is being destroyed;  that there is such a thing as controlled immigration. It isn’t just the best minds that are coming to us; it is people fleeing Assad’s barrel bombs and Islamic State brutality. They are running for their lives, whether they are illustrious or illiterate.

The good news is that most Germans don’t have a problem with this. Sixty percent are of the opinion that the country can absorb the huge numbers of refugees currently arriving. And a new form of civility is developing, one that isn’t just being driven by pricks of conscience and the weight of the past. Rather, it is fuelled by the joy of doing good. But how long will it last?

Mother Merkel as many refugees now call her, is showing courage and leadership, something we lack in Australia. She is finding the road rocky and hilly, but she offers great hope. She is appealing to the better angels of the German people        John Menadue

For a full account of the Spiegel article, see link below:

Posted in Foreign Affairs, Human Rights, Immigration, Politics, Refugees and asylum seekers | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Suffer the little children

 the lifeless body of a child near the Turkish resort of Bodrum early Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2015

The lifeless body of a child near the Turkish resort of Bodrum, early Wednesday 2/9/15 (Huffington Post)

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Bob Kinnaird. China FTA and binding trade treaties are undemocratic.

The China FTA and all international trade agreements are essentially undemocratic because they are ‘binding’ on all future Australian governments. They provide incumbent governments with the opportunity permanently to limit the options open to the Australian people and to tie the hands of their political opponents when they take office.

Most Australians and probably some Australian Parliamentarians would be astonished to discover that treaty-status trade agreements permanently limit the ability of future governments to make laws, regardless of the wishes of the electors.

If the treaty-status China FTA is ratified by the Australian Parliament with ALP support in the Senate and enters into force unchanged, the consequences will effectively be irreversible. The binding treaty obligation will permanently remove the ability of all future Australian governments and Parliaments (among other things) to apply ‘labour market testing or any economic needs test or other procedures of similar effect’ to all Chinese nationals in the standard 457 visa program and ‘installers and servicers’ in the shorter-term 400 visa program.

This suits the Coalition government perfectly. The Coalition is publicly committed to the abolition of labour market testing in the standard 457 visa program. But it does not have the numbers in the Senate to pass the necessary amendments to domestic legislation – the Migration Act – to achieve this.

So it is instead pursuing its aim via binding international treaties, first through the Korean and Japan FTAs which removed 457 labour market testing for nationals of those countries and now the China FTA.

It is undoubtedly doing the same in its FTA negotiations with India and the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) countries. Around 35 per cent of all 457 visas will be exempt from labour market testing by trade obligations, if the abolition of market testing is secured in the China and India FTAs.

In practice, future Australian governments will not be able to reverse these exemptions to our migration laws embedded in treaty-status FTAs. By this point if not sooner, the pressure from all other countries for the same privileges in Australian temporary visa programs will be immense and probably irresistible.

The Coalition government will therefore have achieved its aim of permanently removing the ability of all future Australian governments to reintroduce labour market testing in the 457 visa program as a whole.

But it is doing this not by honest disclosure and arguing the case for changing domestic laws with the Australian people, on the China FTA or the broader plan. Instead, it is using binding international trade agreements to bypass the Australian community and reduce the sovereignty of Australian governments over its own immigration laws.

True democrats and conservatives in the Coalition parties would oppose the government’s use of the China FTA and other treaties to do this.

Bob Kinnaird is Research Associate with The Australian Population Research Institute and was National Research Director CFMEU National Office 2009-14.

Posted in Australia and Asia, Economy, Foreign Affairs, Guest bloggers, Politics | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Alex Wodak. Incarcerating Nations

In the 18th C Britain struggled to accommodate a growing prison population incarcerated for social reasons, mainly poverty. After the America revolution in 1776, Britain became unable to keep sending its excess prisoners to America. The solution was to establish a prison colony in Australia in 1788. Britain never learnt that incarceration is not a solution for serious social problems. Neither did the USA. Nor for that matter did Australia.

With 130 prisoners per 100,000 residents in 20012/13, Australia had the 15th highest incarceration rate of the OECD countries, far behind the OECD and world leader, the USA (701) and well behind New Zealand (7th, 192) and just behind the United Kingdom (13th, 147).

Incarceration rates have been increasing in many countries in recent decades, including Australia. Rent seekers have had a wonderful time. With 4.4 % of the world’s population the USA has almost 25% of the world’s prison inmates. After Nixon declared a War on Drugs in the early 1970s, the US incarceration rate increased five fold peaking in 2007. As with many other fads, California was an early market leader in the US with conservative Republicans, private prison operators and corrections unions working together, each benefitting enormously. Increasing the number of prisoners, building more prisons, improving the wages and conditions of prison guards and expanding the private prison sector worked well at the ballot box as long as voters could continue to be convinced that crime was a serious and ever growing threat. In an era when taxation revenues have been steadily falling, funding extra police, courts and prison costs never seemed a problem. California discovered that cutting higher education could pay for its law and order policies. No one seemed to mind or even notice. The taxpayer even picked up the tab for this electoral Magic Pudding.

All good things come to an end. Eventually. US incarceration rates started declining 7-8 years ago. Now President Obama, supported by politicians from across the political spectrum, has made it clear that he wants to end America’s jails and prisons binge. In an important 45 minute speech1 on criminal justice policy in Philadelphia on 14 July to the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), Obama reminded his audience of the huge gap between the vision of Amertica’s ‘founding [fathers] that we are all created equal, endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights’ with ‘the realities that we live each and every day’. Obama noted that the aims of the NAACP had moved from ending lynching to ending the now more subtle forms of bigotry and gross disparities in opportunity. He reminded his audience that ‘since my first campaign, I’ve talked about how, in too many cases, our criminal justice system ends up being a pipeline from underfunded, inadequate schools to overcrowded jails.’ Obama noted that ‘We keep more people behind bars than the top 35 European countries combined’. Increasing from 500,000 in 1980 to 2.2 million today.  [The number of correctional inmates] ‘has quadrupled since 1980.  Our prison population has doubled in the last two decades alone’. He went on to argue that the main factor driving up the US prison population has been the steadily increasing number of nonviolent drug offenders locked up for longer and longer periods. As Obama observed, the shocking disproportionality of US prison sentences also ended up costing taxpayers $80 billion/year – a sum that he said ‘could pay for universal preschool for every 3-year-old and 4-year-old in America, or a doubling of the salary of every high school teacher in America or investment in new roads, bridges and airports, job training programs, and research and development’. For the cost of keeping ‘everyone locked up for one year’, Obama said ‘we could eliminate tuition at every single one of our public colleges and universities’.

Minorities in the USA have paid a tragically high price for this binge on incarceration. As Obama noted ‘African Americans and Latinos make up 30 percent of our population; they make up 60 percent of our inmates.  About one in every 35 African American men, one in every 88 Latino men is serving time right now.  Among white men, that number is one in 214’.

But nothing lasts forever. Obama observed that ‘for the first time in 40 years, America’s crime rate and incarceration rate both went down at the same time’ last year. He supporting increased investment in communities to reduce crime, increased judicial discretion, greater use of non-custodial sentencing options and prison reform.

Many fads start in California and then spread to the rest of the USA and then to the rest of the world. America has now woken up to the huge social and financial cost of its addiction to incarceration. But like many other addictions, getting this addiction under control takes time and a lot of energy and motivation.

NSW recently broke though the 12,000 inmate barrier. More than 30,000 Australians will go to sleep in a prison cell tonight, no doubt some for very good reason. It’s high time Australian political parties agreed to abandon the Laura Norder debate and work together to reduce our prison population. Prisons should only be used as a last resort. And offenders should be sent to prison as punishment and not for punishment.

Dr Alex Wodak AM is President, Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation




Posted in Economy, Guest bloggers, Politics | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Luke Fraser. Rail infrastructure failure.


In June the Australian Financial Review hosted an Infrastructure Summit of the great and good in Sydney. It heard about the need for much more infrastructure: Australia was ‘well behind’ other countries in such matters. Nobody dwelt on the possibility that in transport at least, Australia might suffer from a tired and patchy regulatory inheritance and an extremely lazy generation of regulatory policy makers.

Thankfully, at least one new project is complete: an Inland Rail. New freight ‘inland ports’ are in place along its 4,000 kilometre length. It out-competes trucks for speed and cost of delivery. In its first decade of operation, it’s expected to drag down freight prices, save almost $6 billion in congestion costs, remove 13 million long-haul trucks from the road, save over 8 billion litres of diesel fuel and reduce carbon emissions by 71 million tonnes. It’s a simple public-private partnership: the operator finances commercial aspects; government chips in based on estimated economic benefits.

The only problem for our infrastructure cheerleaders is this project happened in the United States, not Australia: it’s the $AUD 3.4 billion dollar ‘Crescent Corridor’ – linking Louisiana with New Jersey[i].

It could happen there because US rail is on a market footing. It wasn’t always so. Until 1980, perverse regulations hampered US rail. Here is what President Jimmy Carter said then, when signing into law the Staggers Act of rail reform:

‘By stripping away needless and costly regulation in favor of marketplace forces wherever possible, this act will help assure a strong and healthy future for our Nation’s railroads and the men and women who work for them.

Carter’s efforts didn’t deregulate rail – it remains thoroughly regulated to this day. His administration’s genius lay in recognising and rewarding commercial rail motivations in a cleaner regulatory framework. Amongst other things, Staggers saw loss-making passenger train obligations removed from US freight rail companies. Freight railways were free to decide where to build new productive rail and where to abandon costly ‘basket cases’. Owners were allowed to sell failing rural rail branches to niche operators who could do a better job. After considerable turbulence, all of these measures succeeded. US rail’s share of long-distance interstate transport now stands at around 40 per cent – on Australia’s east coast it is just over 10. Many smaller regional branch lines work efficiently to support the big ‘Class-1’ railways – in Australia these branch lines languish, museum pieces propped up by taxpayers. Since 1980 US rail has made a stunning $AUD 800 billion of new investment into itself. This underlines what happens when regulations encourage the animal economy:

US Freight Railroad Performance Pre and Post-Staggers Act Reforms

Source: Association of American Railroads

Back in Oz, a government-owned entity – Australian Rail Track Corporation (ARTC) still owns the interstate rail system and mostly decides what will be spent, when and where. It preserves an historic network, whether it makes money or not. ARTC in turn relies on meagre taxpayer funding from the transport department: excepting the Keating years, this agency has eschewed serious rail investment in favour of roads: 2014’s 5-year budget saw over $46 billion dollars going to more national highways, city motorways and tollways, while less than a billion flowed to interstate rail.[ii] One of the constants of US rail regulation has been that all railways must be interoperable – a common gauge of track and trains. This promotes scale, competition, flexibility and cheaper prices; 114 years after Federation, Queensland is not yet even on the national standard gauge of rail.

This year the Commonwealth flagged the sale of ARTC. Tellingly, it didn’t prefigure an effort to review the sector’s regulations or provide a stable, market-led road and rail investment environment. What is in prospect is undoubtedly just a rude carve-up: hire a bunch of merchant bank advisors to auction-off government rail assets, then bank the sale price. This is both primitive and highly irresponsible: it will lead variously to rent-seeking and stranded assets if no thought is given to how the newly-privatised market should be structured for maximum long-run national efficiency. In reform terms, it’s the very shallowest part of the pool. Some call it ‘asset recycling’.

Meanwhile, Australia’s own Inland Rail project – a line between Brisbane and Melbourne, west of the Dividing Range – is more Eeyore than Tigger: it languishes unbuilt, a feeding frenzy for consultants and a superannuation plan for administering public servants, who at last count have been voted around $400 million dollars by the Commonwealth. Funds are not earmarked for actually building an operational railway, but mostly just for producing designs, route analysis and ‘preparatory works’ – in the belief that if something is begun, a white knight will surely arrive to finish and operate it. But this project is never likely to become efficient: the regulatory settings are non-commercial, so global commercial rail leaders rightly don’t take it seriously.

For now, such criticisms and alternatives remain academic. Instead of embracing productive reform lessons from elsewhere, our transport bureaucracy’s boilerplate response is to acknowledge any challenge, establish a grand new committee and ask for more money. But what if the agency itself was the problem? Removing the dead hand of agencies on freight solutions and forcing indolent transport regulators to make improvements in the spirit of Carter[iii] should be imperatives for Australia.

The next summit would benefit from locking out the infrastructure cheerleaders – those unfazed by seeing taxpayers blow yet more billions on dumb projects (to be fair, it’s easier to remain unfazed when your company might be landing the contracts).   An alternative would be an adult discussion about how we improve on the specific regulatory settings which are retarding a brighter future for Australian transport consumers and patient capital investors alike.

A future post will address desired Australian land freight reform in more detail: it will attempt to sketch out more productive regulatory settings, funding arrangements, matters of financial and economic viability and their implications for pricing as well as the important matter of a better approach to road pricing for the trucks which (mostly) outcompete Australian rail freight.

Luke Fraser and former Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet Michael Keating AC recently co-authored the transport and infrastructure paper in John Menadue’s Fairness, Opportunity and Security series.

Luke Fraser is founder and principal of Juturna, a public policy consultancy specialised in roads, freight and market investment reforms. He is a former national trucking industry CEO and has authored several reform studies for Infrastructure Australia. He was a member of the 2008 review of NSW grain railways and in 2012 he was appointed to the COAG Road Reform Board.

[i] See or a promotional video at

[ii] The National Land Transport Funding Agreement 2014-2019 refers.

[iii] Carter’s 1980 rail reforms were complemented by sweeping market reform of the aviation and trucking sectors (1978 and 1980 respectively).

Posted in Economy, Guest bloggers, Infrastructure, Politics | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Allan Patience. Australia and the War in Syria.

Australia and the War in Syria: Perverting a Noble Vision in International Law for Ignoble Domestic Political Purposes

In 2005 a summit of world leaders at the United Nations unanimously endorsed the doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). Along with the establishment of the International Criminal Court, it constitutes one of the most noble contributions to international law, ever. Basically the doctrine declares that where a state is incapable or unwilling to protect its citizens, the international community should come to their aid. Intervention may take one or more of several forms: debt forgiveness, manageable loans, direct financial and logistical aid, sanctions, peace keeping operations and – as a very last resort – threatened or actual military intervention.

Like so many modern legal and ethical advances, especially in international law, R2P has been honoured more in its breach than its observance. Since its endorsement by the United Nations, the international community has sat on its hands while vicious ruling elites around the world have unleashed mass atrocities on their pitiless subjects. The prime contemporary example is the criminal Assad regime in Syria. Where interventions in the name of R2P have been initiated (by the UN or other regional or global authorities), they have generally been too little too late, or so badly coordinated they have worsened the very problems they were intended to solve.

It is surely ironic, therefore, that one of the main architects of R2P, Gareth Evans, and another former Labor Foreign Minister, Bob Carr, are now urging the Abbott government to accept the alleged “invitation” from President Obama to extend Australia’s bombing of Islamic State (IS) targets in Syria. They have suggested that this proposed intervention will be in the interests of the hapless victims of the Assad regime and IS, and other opposition elements in the horrific humanitarian catastrophe that is Syria today. That is, they want us to believe that it would entail a humanitarian intervention in line with the principles of R2P. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The bombing campaigns presently being conducted by the United States, Canada, Turkey and other allies are classic illustrations of an inadequately resourced and disastrously coordinated campaign that amounts to much too little, far too late. It will not stop IS in its tracks, nor will it bring down the Assad government. Probably nothing short of a very large number of American, Saudi Arabian, Iranian, NATO and other allies’ boots on the ground will begin to achieve those objectives. As the world well knows, the likelihood of this happening is precisely nil.

Meanwhile the Erdogan government in Istanbul is using the conflict as a cover for its brutal bombing of Kurds in southern Turkey and northern Syria and Iraq. Iran and Saudi Arabia are meddling in the various conflicts in Syria to wage a proxy war for their own nefarious purposes. Russia and China are blocking any genuine R2P attempts in the Security Council. And even if IS is destroyed and Assad and his ruthless cronies are toppled, there is no plan, no strategy, in place to bring order to the region and enable the tragically suffering peoples there begin to rebuild their lives.

It is more than likely that extending bombing into Syria is illegal under international law. Moreover the puny contribution that the few sorties the RAAF is capable of mounting in Syria will be pointless as far as ending the conflict is concerned. Given the propensity for allied bombs to incur “collateral damage” it is inevitable that Australian warplanes will add to the wounding and killing of innocent civilians. Any attempts to dress this up as a humanitarian R2P intervention simply advances the despicable rationale advanced by Tony Abbott for plunging Australia more deeply into a conflict that makes no sense in terms of the country’s real security interests.

Why then is Abbott urging the Americans to let Australia lend a hand in this unholy mess? Two morally grotesque answers immediately come to mind.

First, yet again Australia is cozying up to the United States in the naïve belief that Uncle Sam needs constant assurance of our abject loyalty to the ANZUS alliance. The fact is that the US takes Australia’s uncritical support for granted, end of story.

The second answer relates to Abbott’s electoral fortunes – or misfortunes. There is clearly a belief in the government that scaring the Australian electorate is the surest way of winning the 2016 election. This perverse rationale for recklessly spending Australian blood and treasure in an unwinnable, stupidly conducted, and cruel war reeks of the very basest kind of cynicism. Abbott’s strategy must be exposed for all to see what it truly is: a desperate and despicable attempt to cling on to power, no matter what the consequences for the country or for the world.

It’s time for the Labor Opposition to take an unambiguous stand against sending Australian warplanes into Syria. Bill Shorten and Tanya Plibersek must denounce the plan in the strongest possible terms. They have to explain to the Australian people that their country’s involvement in Iraq and possibly Syria is in fact endangering their security, not protecting it. In addition, Labor needs to advocate a strategy for immediate withdrawal of all Australian troops and materiel from the Middle East. Bring the troops home. There is no way their presence there will end this terrible conflict or reduce the appalling suffering of the civilians on the ground.

And Gareth Evans and Bob Carr should be turning their intelligent minds to theorizing a revised version of R2P. The first version has palpably failed. It needs a comprehensive rethinking. A future Australian government should be at the forefront of advocating the new version of this noble ideal at the United Nations and every other global forum it can attend. In the meantime compounding Abbott’s lie that America wants us by its side in Syria has to be treated with the utter contempt it deserves.

Allan Patience is a foreign policy researcher in the Asia Institute, University of Melbourne.


Posted in Defence/Security, Foreign Affairs, Guest bloggers, Politics | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Frank Brennan. Bishop Geoffrey Robinson at the Royal Commission on Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

The royal commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse continues to fill us with dread that we have not yet adequately identified why the incidence of abuse reported in our institutions is higher than in other churches. The divisions amongst our bishops, previously unreported and unknown previously to many of the faithful, are disheartening. Just this week we have heard Bishop Geoffrey Robinson who was an auxiliary bishop to Cardinal Pell when he was archbishop of Sydney telling the royal commission that His Eminence ‘had lost the support of the majority of his priests and that alone made him a most ineffective bishop’. Cardinal Pell is the most promoted Catholic cleric in Australian history. The point is not whether Bishop Robinson is right or wrong. The point is that we are part of a social institution which is suffering an acute loss of institutional coherence when an auxiliary bishop sees a need to make such a public statement about his erstwhile archbishop.

Two days ago at that royal commission a letter was tendered for all the world to see. It is a letter from Bishop Robinson to His Excellency Archbishop Franco Brambilla who was the papal nuncio here in 1996. According to Bishop Robinson, the nuncio had earlier asserted that there was no such thing as child sexual abuse in the Italian Church. The nuncio had written to Robinson castigating him for criticising the Vatican for being too slow to respond to child abuse in the Church. Robinson had been speaking at a conference dealing with sexual abuse at Sydney University, attended by ‘about 40 victims and 40 journalists’.  One of the participants had suffered abuse at the hands of a Melkite bishop (who died in 2012). Bishop Robinson replied on 8 June 1996:

Turning now to the particular case, I was well aware that in the audience I was speaking to there was a woman who for nearly twelve months had been the victim of the sexual abuse of Bishop George Riashi. He admitted the abuse to Bishop Peter Connors and to yourself at the end of 1993. He also admitted it to the victim in the presence of Bishop Connors. You reported the matter to ‘Rome’ and he was withdrawn from Australia in November 1994. In the month before that, during the last Synod, Cardinal Clancy and Bishop Connors personally informed the Cardinal Prefect of the Oriental Congregation of all aspects of the matter.

From overseas Bishop Riashi continued to insist that he was still Eparch of Australia and would be returning. In June 1995 this was confirmed in a public letter from the Melkite Patriarch. In August 1995, however, Bishop Riashi was instead promoted to be Archbishop of Tripoli in Lebanon. In this capacity he then returned to Sydney in August-September and made many public statements about his innocence and about bad people who sought to discredit him. He succeeded in turning many people against his own victim so that they blamed her rather than him.

Bishop Robinson went on to say to the Apostolic Nuncio: ‘In the matter of Bishop Riashi ‘Rome’ has been of no assistance whatsoever to the Church in Australia. It has, instead, created the potential for a massive scandal in this country.’ I daresay none of us had any idea that this sort of thing was going on. How could it have been possible for such a man to be further promoted in the church hierarchy when there had been admission of such wrongdoing and full disclosure to all relevant church authorities just 20 years ago? How could the papal nuncio who knew all this be writing to castigate a bishop who was saying that there must be a better way, especially when that bishop was the one steering the bishops’ conference at that time to finalise the Towards Healing protocol?

So things are not easy. They are not easy for me as a Catholic priest in the public square. They are not easy for those of you turning up to work each day in your healthcare facilities to further the mission of the Church. They remain wretched for many victims who doubt that the Church can again be trusted. I thank you for your perseverance and pray that together we can make a better fist of holding out to the world the face and hands of Christ.


The above extracts are from an address to the Catholic Health Australia Conference on 26 August 2015. The full text was published in Eureka Street.

Posted in Guest bloggers, Human Rights, Religion and Faith | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments