Ideas@TheCentre – The Centre for Independent Studies


Ideas@TheCentre brings you ammunition for conversations around the table.  3 short articles from CIS researchers emailed every Friday on the issues of the week.

Abbott's diplomacy will pay dividends

04 April 2014

benjamin-herscovitchAs Beijing pushes for control of contested territory across Asia, China's rise and relative US decline are further destabilising the region.

This has fuelled fears that the Abbott government is unprepared and ill-suited to navigate Asia's fraught international relations.

However, with Prime Minister Tony Abbott set for a successful tour of North Asia's three economic powerhouses next week, these doubts are likely to prove unfounded.

Abbott will be warmly welcomed by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe: He publicly labelled Japan as Australia's 'closest friend' in Asia last year, and Canberra has nearly secured a free trade agreement (FTA) with Tokyo.

Beyond extensive and expanding economic relations, Tokyo shares Canberra's commitment to Asia's status quo of ongoing US leadership. At the same time, Tokyo greatly appreciates Canberra's unapologetic opposition to Chinese attempts to establish de facto sovereignty over Japanese-administered territory in the East China Sea.

Abbott will equally share much common ground with South Korean President Park Geun-hye as they sign the Australia-South Korea FTA in Seoul.

Australia and South Korea face the same predicament – longstanding alliances with the United States and economic dependence on China – and Abbott and Park have adopted the same pragmatic tactics: Maintain a strong security relationship with Washington and further develop economic ties with China without kowtowing to Beijing.

Despite hints from Chinese Premier Li Keqiang last month about a speedy conclusion of negotiations for the Australia-China FTA, this trade agreement remains a more distant prospect. Moreover, Beijing was visibly distressed by Canberra's forthright criticism of its East China Sea gambit, while Australia supports and China is suspicious of the growing US military presence in the Western Pacific.

Nevertheless, Abbott's massive delegation – which will include Trade Minister Andrew Robb, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, all six state premiers, and hundreds of business leaders – will not be derailed by strategic disagreements between Beijing and Canberra.

'Win-win cooperation' is the mantra of Chinese foreign policy under President Xi Jinping.

For Beijing, wise diplomacy starts with common ground and shared interests, with contentious disputes deferred for as long as possible.

The government's prioritisation of economic diplomacy is therefore perfectly suited to deepening relations with China. Beijing is keen to downplay diplomatic rifts and concentrate on mutually beneficial trade and investment links.

By emphasising shared strategic goals with Japan and South Korea and focusing on fruitful economic relations with China, Abbott is sending signals that will play well in all key North Asian capitals.

Dr Benjamin Herscovitch is a Beijing-based Research Fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies.


Closing the government gaps

04 April 2014

cowan-simon In a speech this week, Treasury Secretary Martin Parkinson identified two gaps that put pressure on government budgets.

The first is the gap between what the community expects and what governments can realistically do. The second is the gap between what citizens want from the government and what they are willing to pay for. Closing these gaps will be key to addressing Australia's short-term budget problems and our looming, long-term fiscal crisis.

This is likely to prove very difficult. Even modest reforms such as introducing a medicare co-payment, making cross subsidies for regional broadband users transparent or reducing government intervention in the childcare sector have drawn heated responses.

Opponents of co-payments have said that their introduction would be the end of Medicare (despite the existence of co-payments throughout the health system), while advocates of more affordable access to childcare are told they need 'a history lesson.' As for the NBN, without the hidden cross subsidies for regional broadband it should just be shut down. At times the government gaps seem like gaping chasms.

Parkinson then comes up with another insight; that it is unlikely that 'we could achieve the real rate of growth required to return the budget to surplus by relying on economic growth alone.'

This is especially true when you consider the drag on economic growth caused by the increasing size of the government. The explosion of red and green tape, the repeated distortions of free markets through government subsidies and industry policy, not to mention our inadequate processes for assessing and developing public infrastructure in Australia, all contribute to lowering our rate of growth.

To his credit, Parkinson noted that 'by the end of 2012-13, real spending increased significantly more (40 per cent from 2002-03) than real GDP (34 per cent from 2002-03).'

It should be obvious (for several reasons) that the solution to an unsustainable expenditure increase is an expenditure reduction, however Parkinson goes further, advocating tax system reforms to 'truly meet the needs of a modern Australian federation.' This seems to be code for tax rises.

Unfortunately, it seems the Treasury Secretary couldn't quite make the leap across the government gaps

Simon Cowan is a Research Fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies.



Equal under the law - and no exceptions

04 April 2014

peter-kurti Claims that cultural identity mitigates legal responsibility for criminal acts pose a threat to Australia's legal norms.

'Identity [emphasises] the idea of certain reservations which one is entitled to insist on and which others have to recognise as constraints,' warns NYU's Jeremy Waldron.

Far from increasing social cohesion, identity politics makes living with difference harder.

Recent efforts by Australian courts to reconcile the cultural practices of minority groups with the rule of law have produced contrasting results.

In February, a Victorian magistrate accepted 'cultural differences' as a mitigating factor in a case of the attempted kidnap of a child in Geelong by a 35 year old Afghan man.

The magistrate's decision was roundly criticised by Daily Telegraph columnist, Miranda Devine. 'How can "cultural differences" be an excuse for child sexual offences?' Devine asked.

But in NSW, Parramatta local court took no account of differences in culture, practice or belief in sentencing a Muslim cleric charged with solemnising an underage marriage.

The cleric pleaded guilty, was fined, and now faces deportation after performing a 'marriage' between a 12 year old girl and a 26 year old man. The 'husband' faces criminal charges too.

The Marriage Act 1961 stipulates that you have to be 18 years of age to get married. In exceptional circumstances, the age can be lowered to 16. The Act makes no provision for lowering it to 12.

Nor has any Australian parliament made allowance for cultural differences in dealing with another practice that evokes great concern – female genital mutilation (FGM), which is banned outright in Australia.

'Whatever the cultural practice, whatever the religious practice, there is no law above Australian law,' declared NSW Minister for Community Services, Pru Goward.

Advocates of identity politics argue that such laws are racist because they have an unequal impact. But this is to mistake the cart for the horse.

Law is one of the ways a society orders itself and maintains a commitment to justice and dignity for all its citizens. The role of law is to protect without distinction or favour.

By arguing that they identify with their cultural or religious practices, members of minority groups attempt to claim more protection for their interests and practices than they are entitled to.

The demands of minority groups to exemption from laws that apply to everyone else do nothing to strengthen the liberal state.

An authentically liberal approach to living with diversity must resist the claims of group-specific identity and insist on the equal standing of all citizens under the rule of law.

Yet the pressure on Australian local courts to recognise cultural differences when dealing with minority groups is unlikely to ease.

Peter Kurti is a Research Fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies.