Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Westlink nightmare

The freedom of the open road

So the government has announced its route options for Westlink - its "number one priority project".

Whatever option is chosen, the outlet ("hell mouth" as one resident calls it) will come out south west of JJ Holland Park at Dock Link Road, with further links to Dynon Road and Footscray Road. The government has admitted there will be 60,000 vehicles a day using Westlink. A three lane freeway at peak hour would be expected to deliver about 5,000 vehicles an hour.

The result will be gridlock in Footscray Road and Dynon Road. That means much of the traffic will move up Kensington Road and along Macaulay Road - causing massive traffic jams in Kensington. Each evening the process will be reversed, with cars using Kensington to get back on to Westlink.

When planners were asked about this, they answered that trucks would not be able to get under the railway bridge on Kensington Road. This may be true of some trucks, but not all. It will have no effect on the thousands 0f cars which will constitute the majority of the traffic from Westlink.

The heavy traffic load will also mean gridlock in West Melbourne as cars and trucks try to get to and from the city on every available route.

Westlink is the first stage of the controversial Eddington east-west tunnel. The government said so in its documents sent to Infrastructure Australia, obtained by the Greens under the Freedom of Information Act. The RACV is already calling for completion of the whole tunnel.

The build up in traffic will be used to advocate further tunneling, and the result will be ventilation stacks and outlets across the parkland between Kensington and Fitzroy. We don't want to struggle to win something we thought we'd already won.

There is something decidedly dodgy about the government's figures. The say that Westlink will cost only $3 billion. They told Infrastructure Australia that the shorter version of the tunnel would cost $5.8 billion.

There is no federal funding for this project, because Victoria could show no net economic benefit for the project: we would be spending $3 for every $1 gained. Just what is the economic justification for this white elephant?

We don't want the pollution, the noise, and the traffic of Westlink. The entire route follows an underutilized train line. For a fraction of the cost we could have a proper commuter service.

In an era when climate change is a pressing reality, and when peak oil is rendering the combustion engine too expensive, we should be well past thinking of building more roads for gas-guzzling vehicles.

External links

Monday, 26 July 2010


Single log truck in Goongerah, East Gippsland: despite government claims, we are still logging centuries-old forest.

As well as being beautiful and inspiring places filled with life, our forests store vast amounts of carbon.

We all know that we are putting too much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. We do do this not only by burning fossil fuels, but also by destroying biocarbon – such as forests.

In the debate in Australia there has been little attention paid to the role of biocarbon (carbon stored in living systems).

Our forests have a vital role to play both in holding carbon in the trees themselves and in removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Part of the carbon cycle of life, they are both carbon “stores” and carbon “sinks”.

Native forest logging - unlike plantations – is a massive contributor to greenhouse gases. Sir Nicholas Stern found that ending the logging and burning of the world’s old growth forests would reduce global greenhouse emissions by more than the combined emissions of all the world’s transport systems.

Australian National University studies under Professor Brendan Mackey have found that Australian old growth forests often store over 2000 tonnes of carbon per hectare. Clearing and logging native forests contributes about 20% of Australian carbon emissions.

When we log a hectare of forest, not only do we lose a good deal of carbon in the subsequent regeneration burn of all the timber and foliage remaining, but the paper and cardboard products soon deteriorate, releasing most of the balance of the carbon within a space of a few years.

Replanting with 80 year logging cycles only restores a fraction of the original carbon.

Over time, we lose at least 1000 tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere every time a hectare of mature forest is logged.

In Victoria, logging in 2004-5 contributed over 10 million tonnes to Victoria’s greenhouse gas emissions – that’s equivalent to 2.4 million cars – nearly all of Melbourne’s domestic fleet.

Australia has recently retreated from a paltry 5% target for reducing our greenhouse emissions. We could achieve four times that overnight if we just stopped logging.

External links

Saturday, 24 July 2010

LaTrobe Close

This is LaTrobe Close in North Melbourne. It is one of the few green, treed spaces in the area. The trees are alive to the sounds of birds, and the area is used for kicking the footy or teaching children to ride bikes.

In the background there is social housing - well-built, in excellent condition and with 2 and 3 bedrooms, suitable for families. The buildings are on 3 levels, and include undercover parking.

The State and Federal governments plan to bulldoze the existing social housing and build high density social housing of one or 2 bedrooms with a height between 4 and 7 storeys.

There will be no open space for use - just walkways between buildings. The trees and open space will go.

The first phase will have 120 units for social housing, and the second phase a further 100 units, although whether these will be for social housing is not clear.

Because this project has been funded as part of the Commonwealth government's stimulus package, all planning, heritage, social and community concerns have been by-passed, and the local community have been shut out of the process.

The community supports social housing, but there are many problems with this development, including
  • the wasteful demolition of existing social housing,
  • over development of the site,
  • removal of an important green space,
  • failure to provide the long promised kindergarten on the site,
  • failure to provide the welfare infrastructure needed for intensive social housing, and
  • failure to consult the community who have much more creative ideas about achieving the desired outcome.
Is this the best we can do as a community? Throw a whole lot of money at a developer. Tell them to build lots of small units. Concrete over green spaces. Forget about the infrastructure needed by those who will live in the units and nearby. Ensure a handsome profit for the developer. Refuse to listen to the concerns of the local residents.

Planning must involve the community.

Site of the proposed LaTrobe Close development

External Links:

Thursday, 22 July 2010

J'Accuse...! The Dreyfus Affair

Alfred Dreyfus

The human family has ever found ways to marginalise some of its members. Fear and misunderstanding can come in many guises – witch hunts in the middle ages, McCarthyist persecution of supposed communists in the 1950s, and of course that perennial defilement, racial prejudice.

France, like other countries, has had its share of this. The Dreyfus Affair was particularly shameful not just for the unjust suffering imposed on a loyal Frenchman, but because those entrusted with power knew that what was happening was wrong. They found it expedient to allow a member of a marginalised community group to suffer rather than take responsibility for injustice.

For years, the authorities swept Captain Dreyfus under the carpet – like so much embarrassing dust. The legacy was a divided and weakened France.

Whilst we should be alert to the follies of drawing too close a parallel between historical events and our present day challenges, we must also be astute to learn the lessons of history. Stories from the past are our key to understanding the human condition.

Today, as we face issues of injustice, of threats to minority groups, and abuse of state power, the Dreyfus Affair continues to resonate.

The Dreyfus affair began in 1894, when French authorities gained possession of a “bordereau” (or memorandum), which listed items the writer would deliver to Lieutenant-Colonel Schwartzkoppen – the German military attaché in Paris. The bordereau demonstrated that there was a traitor in the military prepared to hand secret information to the Germans.

Another intercepted message to Schwartzkoppen referred to a person known as “D”. French officers searched their files for officers with surnames beginning with “D”, and when they came to Dreyfus – an Alsatian Jew – they had their culprit.

The first notable legal feature of the Dreyfus case is the infamous “dictation test” to which he was subjected. The authorities needed to obtain a control sample of Dreyfus’s handwriting, against which to assess the handwriting on the bordereau. Accordingly, on Monday morning 15th October 1894, Captain Alfred Dreyfus’s nightmare began. Major the Marquis Du Paty de Clam summoned Dreyfus to headquarters, showed him a bandaged thumb, and asked him to write a letter he would dictate.

He began to dictate from the bordereau. When Du Paty demanded to know why Dreyfus was trembling, he explained that he was cold, and kept writing. Finally, Du Paty shouted to Dreyfus that he was under arrest for treason. The bewildered Dreyfus protested his innocence. Du Paty offered him a pistol, but Dreyfus declined suicide, and said that he wanted to live to prove his innocence and vindicate his name.

The dictation test was a way of making Dreyfus incriminate himself – without caution, without even knowing the charge against him, and in violation of his right to silence. He was asked to write out the very words of the note said to constitute evidence of treason, but not told why. He complied, thinking it was a simple clerical task.

Today the security authorities in Australia – particularly ASIO – have power to compulsorily question in relation to security matters. There is no right to silence, and a person commits an offence if they do not provide the information sought. If charged, it is for the defendant to prove he or she did not know the information being sought – an almost impossible task. Although the information actually given will be subject to indemnity, further material derived from that information can be used in evidence against a person compulsorily questioned – a serious inroad into the right to silence and the privilege against self-incrimination. Powers of this kind are open to abuse – and already have been abused here in Australia. It is because power corrupts that democracies surround powers with proper safeguards. The exercise of the ASIO powers is secret, largely unaccountable, and overrides internationally recognised human rights.

In prison, Dreyfus was held incommunicado. This was designed to avoid political embarrassment to the government – there was no forensic or security reason for doing so. The Minister for War, General Auguste Mercier, realised when he saw the file that the case against Dreyfus was weak: much of the information in the bordereau could not have been known to Dreyfus, and the reference in the document to the writer being about to go on manoeuvres was not consistent with Dreyfus’s own schedule. Mercier moved to the conclusion that Dreyfus should be freed.

Enter the right-wing press. La Libre Parole was the most virulent of a group of anti-Semitic papers in circulation in Paris in the 1890s. It was the type of lurid journalism which spouted crackpot theories about international conspiracies of Jewish bankers. Lieutenant-Colonel Henry, was a friend of the French army officer Marie Charles Ferdinand Walsin-Esterhazy – the real author of the bordereau. Fearful that his friend might be exposed, Henry leaked information to La Libre Parole that the Jew Dreyfus was being held as a traitor, but some people in the War Department were thinking of releasing him. The resultant publicity, alleging that the War Department was probably being paid off by a syndicate of international Jewry, made it clear to Mercier that if he freed Dreyfus, he might lose office, and the government could fall.

Freedom of the press is an important feature of western democracy. The role of the press, it has been said, is to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. Whilst we should protect the freedom of the media assiduously, we should also remind them that at times they abuse their great power. This was an example.

Examples today are the racist remarks of some journalists and shock jocks, all too often legitimising in the public mind the segregation of some ethnic groups in our community. For example, during the July 2002 furore over the Sydney gang rapes, one prominent journalist falsely asserted that “pack rape of white girls was an initiation rite of passage for a small section of young male Muslim youths”.

The trial against Dreyfus opened on 19th December 1894. The court martial decided to conduct its hearings in camera. It was said – falsely – that top secret issues of national security were involved. Injustice is more readily done when courts are closed, because open hearings impose a layer of accountability on tribunals. Had the hearing been open, there is little doubt Dreyfus would have been acquitted.

Security issues are often invoked to seek closed hearings – but the real reason in the Dreyfus case was political expediency.

One of the terror laws passed since September 2001 is the National Security Information (Criminal and Civil Proceedings) Act 2004. Under this legislation, the Attorney-General of the day – a politician – may certify that a particular trial is one to which the Act applies. Once the trial is so categorised, the Attorney-General has a number of further powers. One of the most significant is that the trial may be closed to the public, just as happened in the Dreyfus case.

The case against Dreyfus was, in terms of the evidence presented, a farce. Lieutenant-Colonel Henry testified that an honourable person – “absolutely honourable” - had told him that an officer was committing treason – and had named the officer. “And this traitor –“ he shouted, pointing at Dreyfus “there he is!” Dreyfus jumped to his feet and demanded to know the name of his accuser. Henry merely tapped his cap and said, “There are secrets in an officer’s head that even his cap must not know.” He would not name the officer, but could only swear on his honour that he told the truth. With an air of great gravity he declared: “I so swear!”

Had it ended there, even a secret trial would have been bound to acquit.

But it did not end there. The acquittal of Dreyfus would cripple the government of France, and powerful men were determined to prevent that.

Du Paty secretly approached the presiding judge and handed him a sealed envelope, which he said came from a cabinet member who requested the contents be made known to the judge. The defence did not even know of this material, and had no opportunity to challenge it. The dossier was littered with forgeries, lies, rumour and innuendo, as would have been exposed if an opportunity had been afforded to challenge it.

Australia’s National Security Information Act permits the Attorney-General to certify that a statement of a particular witness can be tendered without the witness being subject to cross-examination. It also permits the Attorney-General to certify that particular questions cannot be answered. It even permits the Attorney to authorise a summary of a witness’s testimony to be tendered. Evidence can also be led in the absence of the accused. This kind of procedure radically distorts the justice system, and allows precisely the kind of injustice seen in the Dreyfus case by the use of the dossier. It expressly authorises political interference in trials, and deprives the defence of an opportunity to challenge evidence.

In fact, the dossier contained information that the real perpetrator of treason wanted to plant on Dreyfus. Secret hearings, and clandestine evidence passed to judges, aid those who want to settle grudges or divert attention from themselves.

In violation of French law, the secret dossier was opened by the judges when they retired to consider their verdict. It led to the conviction of Dreyfus. When the verdict was announced, Dreyfus’s lawyer, the eminent jurist Charles Demange, sobbed.

After his conviction and disgrace, Dreyfus was held on Devil’s Island in the Caribbean. The parallel with Guantanamo Bay is all too obvious. Australians Mamdouh Habib and David Hicks were transported there without any legal hearing - not as prisoners of war, not as convicted prisoners, not under legal process by way of deportation or extradition orders. They were kidnapped, in violation of all the usages of international custom, international law, and human rights.

Remote islands continue to be a convenient place of exile for the politically embarrassing. Just when we had closed Nauru and ended the Pacific solution, the present government has begun exploring other remote islands in which to warehouse asylum seekers..

In 1896 Lieutenant-Colonel Georges Picquart, head of the Intelligence Bureau of the general staff, examined the Dreyfus case, including the secret dossier. What he saw convinced him that Dreyfus was innocent. When he urged his superiors to have the case reconsidered, because an innocent man was in prison, he was told that the matter was closed. “You may be sure” he famously responded “that I will not carry this message with me to the grave.”

The media having caused so much of the problem for Dreyfus, other newspapers now rallied to his cause. The Liberal Le Matin obtained the bordereau and published it. It became clear to many that Dreyfus did not write it.

Dreyfus’s supporters continued to lobby, and it emerged that the handwriting on the bordereau matched that of Esterhazy – the real culprit. Mathieu Dreyfus publicly accused him of being the author, in an unsuccessful attempt to goad him into a defamation action. Then Mathieu printed a pamphlet naming Esterhazy as the traitor. Finally the War Department was forced to court martial the real culprit.

The procedure was a confused travesty, and Esterhazy was acquitted after a brief hearing.

Two days later, on 13th January 1898, there appeared across the front page of L’Aurore (the literary and artistic newspaper) one of the most famous headlines in history: “J’Accuse…!

Risking prosecution for criminal libel, and loss of his freedom, the novelist Emile Zola accused named officials of specific and criminal abuse of their duties. The government retaliated, and charged Zola with criminal libel, confining the charges in an effort to avoid reopening the Dreyfus case.

Despite testimony from Lieutenant Colonel Picquart, and Anatole France, and despite Esterhazy refusing to answer any questions, Zola was convicted, and sentenced to prison and a fine.

The role of the artistic and intellectual community in agitating for Dreyfus’s release should be remembered. Zola’s truth-speaking placed his liberty at risk. He confronted powerful forces who did not want to have Dreyfus released. To challenge those forces was to place himself at their mercy - but when he did so, he invigorated the movement to exonerate Alfred Dreyfus.

In Australia, actors, artists and writers have often shown themselves to be the conscience of the nation. They have been prominent in calling for injustice to asylum seekers to be recognised and remedied, forming lobby groups, conducting shows, and keeping the issue in the national consciousness, in a way that echoes Zola’s committed action a century ago. Many activists have been subjected to defamation writs in an attempt to silence them.

When Picquart publicly exposed the falsity of the accusations against Dreyfus – at the cost of his own arrest for revelation of secret army documents - Dreyfus was brought back to France for retrial.

The 1899 trial was a sensation. One government advocate was caught tampering with documents. A defence counsel was shot (not fatally) on his way to court, and his briefcase stolen. Despite the obvious paucity of evidence, the court convicted Dreyfus again – but said there were “extenuating circumstances” (for an officer committing treason!) and reduced the sentence to ten years. It was not until seven years later after an abortive appeal process that a presidential decree finally declared Dreyfus innocent and remitted all punishment.

An Act of Parliament reinstated him to the Army, the ceremony occurring on 13th July 1906. A few days later, a crowd estimated at some 200,000 gathered to see him invested with the legion of honour. He later retired with the rank of major. In 1908 he was shot and wounded by a journalist, who was acquitted of attempted murder. Recalled to duty, he served France in the Great War.

Picquart served 11 months in prison, awaiting a trial which never took place. He later became the Minister for War.

Security issues may be important, but they can also be used to mask injustice. The Scott Parkin case is an example.

France lost international standing over its treatment of Dreyfus, which became an international scandal.

One of the features of the politics of race – where leaders actually exploit racial divisions in order to advance their power – is that it divides the nation. Such divisions, once let loose, can persist for a long time. When Billy Hughes exploited the divide between Catholics and Protestants over the conscription controversy in the First World War, the fault lines lasted half a century.

Anti-Semitism in France did not die when Dreyfus was exonerated. The rulers of Vichy France – the men who made their accommodation with the Nazis - were in many cases the same men who supported Dreyfus’s long incarceration. They imposed a ruthlessly anti-Semitic regime: in Vichy France, the domestic police were routinely used to round up the Jews: something that did not happen in the same way even in Nazi Germany.

It is often tempting to point the finger at other nations with such a record, as if they were somehow evil whilst we are good, but all of us share the responsibility for such deeds. The French failure has been paralleled in every nation, including our own. We have grotesque anti-Semitism here. And of course, no group has a monopoly on suffering. At the moment, for example, to be a Muslim in Australia is to experience real and at times dangerous prejudice.

Terrible though the treatment of Dreyfus was, there remains both inspiration and hope in his story. Who can fail to be inspired by those who struggled to right the wrong, and by the bearing of Dreyfus himself -continuing to declare his loyalty to France despite injustice. And who cannot be warmed by the hope that, like those who supported Dreyfus, we are all able to make a difference if we act to right injustice in the world.

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Monday, 19 July 2010

Slapping on the Writs

When Gunns sued 20 community activists and organisations, the case brought to public prominence the long and growing trend of "Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation".

The Bannockburn Yellow Gum Action Group was a small community group formed to protect a woodland near Geelong. Barwon Water, a public authority responsible for the water supply and sewerage of the greater Geelong region, wanted to bulldoze the woodland for a sewerage farm.

The chairman of Barwon Water was Frank De Stefano, a prominent former mayor of Geelong.

As part of its campaign, the Bannockburn group produced a bumper sticker “Barwon Water – Frankly Foul”. It was a punning reference to Frank de Stefano, and the authority’s poor record on sewerage outfall.

Mr De Stefano could have laughed off the joke. He could have replied to his critics in the press. He could have published his own bumper sticker. Instead, he sued for defamation.

The writs were delivered on Christmas Eve.

Although the writs named Mr De Stefano as the Plaintiff, the action was funded, at public expense, by Barwon Water.

In the writ, Mr De Stefano pleaded that the joke carried the imputations that:

· Frank De Stefano was a foul person.

· Frank De Stefano was a person smeared with the sewage that the authority of which he was Chairman treated.

· Frank De Stefano was a person who smelt like sewage.

· Frank De Stefano was a person unfit to hold the position of Chairman of Barwon Water.

It was no joke for the defendants. They could defend the case, at great cost, and run the risk of losing their houses if they lost - and losing a great deal of money in costs even if they won. They were opposed by a person who was using public money to run his case, and faced none of the same risks. The defendants were not familiar with defamation legislation, and fatigued from running a demanding campaign and trying to keep up professional and personal commitments.

Defending the case was likely to take a large investment of time, week after week, for years.

The case became enmeshed in complexity and cost. In the end, the group took legal advice, apologised and paid $10,000.

The case was an enormous setback to the community campaign – few wanted to risk involvement if they were likely to be sued.

The trees were felled.

Those who paid out $10,000 for this action will not see their money – or the trees - again. As a result of the writ – which never came to court – the fate of the Bannockburn woodland was decided without the community being able to make a full contribution to the issues.

And it was no comfort to them that Frank De Stefano was later sentenced to many years in jail for defrauding the clients of his accountancy firm.

Cases like this are a growing phenomenon throughout Australia. The uniform defamation laws, which came into operation in 2006, makes it much harder for corporations to sue for defamation, but there are many other causes of action that corporations use - including, ironically, the Trade Practices Act.

When a developer sues a community group for defamation, the developer can claim the expense as a tax deduction – the community group has no such advantage. And the developer runs the case with a prospect of an award of damages at the end. The community group has no such prospect.

The community is not some vague ether in the air – it is the communication between its members. When we stifle public discourse, we stifle community.

Words matter. They can hurt and harm, as well as bring wisdom and healing. The same words that inspire one hearer will outrage another. To silence speech is to stifle the good with the bad.

Australia has no comprehensive protection of community members when speaking about matters of public interest, or about the performance of holders of public office. Commentary on these things ought to be the function of citizens.

In several north American jurisdictions, SLAPP suits – an acronym for Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation – have grown to the point where legislatures have enacted laws to protect public participation. These laws enable courts to punish plaintiffs who bring actions to silence members of the community, by making those plaintiffs pay damages themselves.

Of course, one of the things which makes this more practical in other countries is that they recognise free speech as a human right - something that Australia, alone of all western nations, has not done. The present government missed the opportunity to do this, despite the recommendations of the Brennnan committee.

With the growing phenomenon in Australia of SLAPP suits designed to have a chill effect on public involvement, it is high time similar laws were enacted here.

My book on SLAPP suits came out the year before the Gunns 20 case

External Links

Sunday, 18 July 2010


“Change we can believe in” thundered the Obama campaign. “Hope” he offered, and even “Yes We Can”.

Here in Australia, during the 2007 campaign, our leaders were too shy to use inspiring words like “change” or “hope”. We rallied to the slogan “Kevin 07”.

But that did not mean that we did not yearn for hope, or that we did not believe in change.

Yesterday we saw the announcement of a federal election on 21st August. Labor leader Julia Gillard mouthed her mantra "moving forward" over 2o times in her speech. What does she mean by "moving forward"?

Julia Gillard did announce her "values":
  • hard work,
  • the importance of respect and valuing other people,
  • and "most importantly, the transformative power of a high quality education".
These are not values that should be dismissed - who could disagree with them? But they are an oddly narrow set of values and do not appear to have any connection to "moving forward".

Tony Abbott countered with his repeated slogan "real action". Presumably, as opposed to fake action or real inaction.

Slogans are an inevitable part of electioneering - they are a way to communicate a message succinctly, and hopefully, persuasively.

But when the slogan becomes the substance, we are in trouble. The slogan "moving forward" suggests progressive values, but there was no hint of such values in Julia Gillard's speech. It was a slogan without content. Empty sloganeering debases our political debate and disenfranchises the community.

Bob Brown gave his own content to the phrase:
Moving forward will mean a carbon tax on polluters, bringing home safely Australia's troops from Afghanistan, a universal dental care scheme, humane treatment of asylum seekers in Australia, protecting our forests and wildlife
Today we want our leaders to confront the great issues of our generation:
  • our relationship to the environment - sustainability;
  • our relationship with other nations - peace;
  • our relationship with each other: including giving the community power over the decisions that affect their lives - real democracy - and encouraging generosity and tolerance towards all sections of our society so that the creativity of our community can flourish and find its full expression - human rights.
With those values affirmed, we might have accepted the slogan "moving forward" - because our leaders really would be providing hope, and really would be working towards change we could believe in.

As it is, I can't wait for the spoofs.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Against the Odds

In the late 1970s I attended a law conference at Wrest Point Casino. At the time, it was fairly new, and the only casino in the country. It was then - and still is - the tallest building in Hobart.

To enter the gaming room, patrons dressed in dinner suits and evening gowns. Everyone tried to look sophisticated. There were no poker machines, but gamblers tried their luck at roulette wheels, or played hands of black jack or wagered on dice.

The glitz was a little too garish, the attendants a little too bored, the carpet just a little too tired. The impression was tarted-up tawdry.

I watched one man play black jack. He had a stake of $1500 - a lot of money then. I speculated he had resolved to win enough to buy a new Holden Kingswood - or lose what he had. He lost it all very quickly, and left the table looking devastated.

Nowadays it's all poker machines, and to my eyes a desperately sad place to visit.

Here in Victoria the harm caused by poker machines is well documented. A significant proportion of the revenue of large gambling companies comes from problem gamblers. These are people who cannot control their gambling. To take financial advantage of such people is like selling liquor to an alcoholic. It is not only immoral, it is illegal. It constitutes "unconscionable conduct" under the Trade Practices Act, (see section 51AB).

There are many procedures available to casino owners to identify problem gamblers so that no gambling arrangement is entered into with them. Those procedures are not being taken with sufficient vigour.

What should we require them to do? It sometimes seems the gambling establishments hold all the aces.

Lost in the flurry of 23rd June - the day Julia Gillard announced she would challenge Kevin Rudd's leadership of the parliamentary Labor Party - the government released the Productivity Commission's Gambling Inquiry Report.

It is a fine piece of work, and details the high cost to the community of problem gambling.

Key recommendations include
  • limiting electronic gaming machines to a maximum $1 bet
  • allowing patrons to see their transaction history
  • showing on machines the cost of playing (this can be tailored to take into account the individual's style of playing)
  • prohibiting venues from offering inducements likely to lead to problem gambling, including offering free alcohol to a patron who is gambling
  • prohibiting venues from cashing out winnings (which can then be gambled away)
  • providing a range of simple means by which players could voluntarily set personal spending limits
You get the picture: the idea is to leave power in the hands of patrons at every stage, and allow them to monitor and reconsider their conduct regularly.

The gambling industry should not be permitted to dice with the future of vulnerable people. Problem gambling affects the whole community, and the Productivity Commission provides us with a practical way forward.

External links

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Silencing the Music

Thousands at the SLAM rally on 23rd February 2010
From June 2009, all across Victoria, live music gigs were suddenly cancelled. Fans came for regular gigs, but were turned away, or sat cradling a lonely drink in rooms that seemed strangely desolate. Bands who had performed every week for ten years were told they could no longer play.

It covered all kinds of music, from country and western, to bagpipes, jazz, folk, skiffle, blues.

Liquor Licensing Victoria - a branch of the Department of Justice - had decided to enforce licence conditions requiring security guards when live music was performed at licensed venues. Suddenly a simple concert was no longer economic.

The reason? Live music was said to increase the risk of alcohol-related violence. There was, and is, no evidence to support this.

The Department of Justice, in its Liquor Control Reform Regulations, Regulatory Impact Statement, August 2009, states in relation to violence:

missing or incomplete data prevented drawing any firm conclusions about whether live music represents a risk factor (p iv).

Yet the impact statement also stipulates:

Risk factors need to be substantiated by a sound evidence base and rationale (p iii).

Even though gigs had been a regular fixture for years at inner city pubs, and there had been no history of violence or even drunkenness at all, Liquor Licensing Victoria still enforced the requirements, and live music fell silent.

Anger and even bewilderment simmered. Pleas from musicians were ignored. When the Tote closed in January 2010, public outrage boiled over.

On 23rd February thousands marched in the streets of Melbourne at the SLAM (Save Live Australian Music) Rally.

The Government signed an accord promising to fix the problem - but they left it up to venues to apply to alter the conditions of their permits. The problem is far from fixed. Many venues have found the whole thing too much of a hassle, and our cultural life remains diminished.

Alcohol-related violence is real, and there is a need to take firm action against it. But music does not cause violence. It was just an easy target.

Sometimes there is conflict between loud live music and residential amenity. There are good solutions to this problem, including the recent example set by Fortitude Valley in Brisbane.

The live entertainment industry contributes some $1,888 million to the Victorian economy each year. But live music cannot be measured in economic terms. Music enriches us in so many other ways, and it is part of a vibrant culture.

The right to participate in cultural life - including music - is an internationally recognised human right. When the Victorian government applied a "one size fits all" approach to live music venues and forced many of them to close, it violated that right.

We should do all we can to encourage live music, which makes our lives more beautiful.

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