What I'm Reading

Add your reaction Share

World Diabetes Day

Today is World Diabetes Day - a chance to recognise the enormous burden that type 1 and type 2 diabetes places on Australians and our health system. More information on the World Diabetes Day website.
Add your reaction Share

Out and About in Fraser

Add your reaction Share

Whitlam Without the Dismissal

Last night, I gave the guest lecture at Werriwa FEC's 35th anniversary dinner to remember the Dismissal. My theme was 'Whitlam Without the Dismissal' - taking a guess at how Australia might have looked if Kerr hadn't acted. Counterfactual history isn't new - one of my favourites is Mark Lawson's Idlewild (which imagines a US in which Marilyn and JFK survived). And there was even an Australian book titled What If? that was published a few years ago.

I'm not sure that I'll get a chance to turn my speech notes into a transcript, so let me give you the short version. Whitlam survives until 1983, carrying out major economic reforms, a vast arts renaissance, and a treaty with Indigenous Australians. The Peacock government rules from 1983-93, and is socially liberal but economically inept. The Beazley government takes over from 1993 and continues economic reform, while deftly defusing the Hanson phenomenon. (I resisted the temptation to go past the Beazley government.)

Under this theory, Australia stays in sync with the US and UK political cycles: left-wing in the 1980s, and right-wing from the mid-1990s. That said, luck still plays a major part in my story - it's just that instead of Bertie Miliner's heart attack and Vince Gair's love of prawns, it's the global recessions of the early-1980s and early-1990s that cause power to change in Australia.
Add your reaction Share

Behind Bars

My AFR opinion piece today is on incarceration rates.

Too Many in the Lock-Up, Australian Financial Review, 9 November 2010

I spent the morning behind bars last week: a relatively unusual experience for a sitting politician. Opened in 2008, Canberra’s new jail is one of a dozen or so correctional facilities that have opened across Australia in the past decade.

Building prisons is a growth industry because the number of inmates continues to grow. As James Eyers pointed out in this newspaper recently, the growth in Australia’s prison population has been driven not by a rise in crime, but by law changes such as tougher bail conditions and mandatory non-parole periods.

As a result, Australia has 175 prisoners per 100,000 adults, up from 112 prisoners per 100,000 adults in 1990. For Indigenous Australians, the rate is up from 1758 to 2310 prisoners per 100,000 Indigenous adults. Put another way, one in 43 Indigenous Australians are presently behind bars. Among young Indigenous men, the share is 1 in 15.

As with many things – good and bad – the United States suggests what the future might hold for us. In a recent analysis, sociologists Bruce Western (Harvard) and Becky Pettit (University of Washington) point out that US jails currently hold over 2 million people, or 762 prisoners for every 100,000 adults. 

For some, the rate is substantially higher. Among men aged 20-34 who did not complete high school, the US imprisonment rate is a jaw-dropping 12 percent for whites and 37 percent for blacks.

And that’s just the proportion behind bars on any given day. By the time black high school dropouts reach their mid-30s, Western and Pettit estimate that 69 percent will have been imprisoned. In other words, if you’re a black man who doesn’t finish high school, the odds are two in three that you’ll see the inside of a prison cell. Overall, African-American incarceration rates are higher than for Indigenous Australians.

As Western and Pettit point out, one of the things that a high incarceration rate does is to make other statistics look good. For example, official employment surveys exclude the prison population. Among young black dropouts, the effect of adding prisoners back in is to reduce the employment rate for this group from 40 percent to 25 percent. The same is likely to be true of other measures, such as income inequality and ill health. Because numbers often drive policy, this kind of invisible disadvantage can readily be missed in public debates.

Another feature of persistently high incarceration rates is its intergenerational impact. In the US today, 2 percent of white children have a parent in jail. Among African-American children, the figure is 11 percent. In the US, around 1.2 million black children have a parent behind bars. While I was unable to find comparable statistics for Australia, anecdotal evidence suggests that a substantial proportion of Australian prisoners have children outside. Whatever your view on the impact of jail on those locked up, mass imprisonment of parents should be a concern to anyone who cares about breaking the intergenerational poverty cycle.

For the US, tight fiscal circumstances can have two possible impacts on prisons: less spending per inmate, or fewer inmates. So far, states seem inclined towards the former (a New York Times report last year revealed that Alabama budgets $1.75 per prisoner per day for food). However, it is possible that as the US downturn continues, it may prompt a broader rethink of the nation’s prison policy.

In the Australian case, the total cost of prisons is nearly $3 billion per year, or about $100,000 per prisoner. Yet the real cost of incarceration comes afterwards, with ex-prisoners more likely to commit further crimes and less likely to find a job. While prison is a place of rehabilitation for some, others are scarred by the experience. Sexual violence in prison probably isn’t as common as in the 1990s (when NSW magistrate David Heilpern estimated that one-quarter of young male prisoners were raped), but the rate is likely higher than in the outside world. And the median sentence length in Australia is 3 years, which means released prisoners often find that the only friends who haven’t deserted them are the ones they made inside.

Getting prison policy right isn’t easy, but if there’s one country that can show the way, it should be Australia: the nation that showed the world that if they’re given a chance, convicts can do just as well as anyone.

Andrew Leigh is the federal member for Fraser.
Add your reaction Share

Wild Rivers Inquiry

One of the House of Representatives Committees I am on is the Economics Committee.  The Economics Committee will be examining Indigenous economic development in Queensland including issues surrounding Queensland’s Wild Rivers Act 2005.

“In addition to examining the broader question of Indigenous economic development, this inquiry will examine the impact that the proposed Wild Rivers (Environmental Management) Bill 2010 would have, if passed,” said the Chair of the Committee, Craig Thomson (Member for Dobell, NSW). 

The Queensland Wild Rivers Act 2005 aims to ‘preserve the natural values of rivers that have all, or almost all, of their natural values intact’, but not undermine sustainable Indigenous economic development in the Cape York region or other parts of Queensland.

So far, 10 areas have been declared Wild Rivers.  They are:

Wenlock Basin (2010) Archer River (2009)
Stewart River (2009) Lockhart River (2009)
Fraser River (2007) Gregory River (2007)
Hinchinbrook River (2007) Morning Inlet (2007)
Settlement River (2007) Staaten River (2007)

The Terms of Reference for the inquiry, referred by the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, Ms Jenny Macklin, are:

The Committee should examine the scope for increasing sustainable Indigenous economic development in Queensland and including in the Cape York region having regard to the aspirations of Indigenous people and the social and cultural context surrounding their participation in the economy. 

The Committee will consider:

1)     existing environmental regulation, legislation in relation to mining and other relevant legislation including the Wild Rivers Act (Qld) 2005 and the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999;

2)     the impact which legislation in the form of the Wild Rivers (Environmental Management) Bill 2010 would have, if passed; and

3)     options for facilitating economic development for the benefit of Indigenous people and the protection of the environmental values of undisturbed river systems.

The full Terms of Reference can be found on the Committee’s webpage at: http://www.aph.gov.au/economics

The federal parliamentary committee is keen to hear from Indigenous communities, industry, mining, peak associations, academia, government departments and individuals.  The committee will accept submissions, preferably by email, until Friday, 26 November 2010.  The Committee has been asked to report by March 2011.

Further details about the inquiry, including how to make a submission, can be obtained from the committee’s website at www.aph.gov.au/economics or by contacting the committee secretariat on (02) 6277 4209 or emailing [email protected]
Add your reaction Share

Politzer People's Choice Voting (closes Nov 19)

The 'Politzer' prize is for photographs taken by politicians of places in their electorate. A photo of mine - taken at Floriade - has made the shortlist. If you'd like to check out the finalists (and vote for the people's choice awards), go to this website.
Add your reaction Share

YouTube Channel

I've now set up an Andrew Leigh YouTube channel (in the 21st century, anyone can be a media mogul). It includes my first speech, as well as recent appearances on Lateline, ABC24, and Sky.

Add your reaction Share

Australian Researcher in International Virus Research

A University of Canberra Professor has been awarded approximately half a million dollars to continue vital medical research.

Minister for Mental Health and Ageing Mark Butler, and Member for Fraser Dr Andrew Leigh today announced that Professor Suresh Mahalingam will receive a National Health and Medical Research Council - European Union grant of $494,022 over three years from the National Health and Medical Research Council.

“The grant, funded by the Gillard Government, will allow Professor Mahalingam to contribute to the international effort to tackle the Chikungunya virus (CHIKV),” Mr Butler said.

“Although not well known in Australia, CHIKV is a mosquito borne virus that causes fever, rashes, intense headaches and severe joint inflammation.  Recovery in adults takes around one to two and a half months with joint pain known to last up to two years.”

Dr Andrew Leigh said:  “This research is part of an international project which will focus on co-ordinating research efforts to enhance monitoring and surveillance of CHIKV, diagnosis, treatment and prevention. 

“Findings will contribute to the broader fight against viruses, the most dangerous and easily transmitted infectious agent.”

The NHMRC – EU scheme supports Australian participation in leading international collaborative research under the EU Seventh Framework Program. The Australian grant will support the health research project co-funded by the European Commission, and carried out within Australian and European research institutions.
Add your reaction Share

Talking Water

The Murray Darling Basin Authority's ACT consultation session on Nov 11 has apparently been moved to a slightly larger room. It'll now be in the Manning Clarke Theatre, Building 26(a), Union Court, Australian National University. The session runs from 9am to noon. Registration details here.
Add your reaction Share

Stay in touch

Subscribe to our monthly newsletter


Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.