Human Rights in Syria



I spoke in parliament last night about recent human rights abuses in Syria.
Syria, 1 June 2011

Syria is a nation not unlike ours. We both have a population of approximately 22½ million people. We both have long and ancient cultures that are internationally recognised as cradles of civilisation. We both have abundant energy resources in the form of natural gas and oil. But that is where our stories diverge.

Unlike our fellow countrymen and women, Syrians are being killed and arrested for wanting a voice in the government of their country, for wanting their government to be based on democratic principles such as freedom of speech, the right to peacefully assemble, equality under the rule of law and the right to choose one's own leaders. These killings and arrests have to stop. The Syrian human rights organisation, Swasiya, estimates the number of civilians killed to be at least 1,100 since pro-democracy protests started in Deraa on 18 March.

In May, Syrian security forces went into the central city of Homs to suppress pro-democracy activists. A 12-year-old boy was killed as a result of the use of tanks and machine-gun fire against civilians. The situation has continued to worsen. Recently, Reuters reported that 27 civilians were killed over three days as Syrian security forces used tanks to crack down on pro-democracy protesters in the Lebanese border town of Tel Kelakh.

The tragic irony is that the Syrian constitution guarantees in article 25 that freedom is a sacred right. It also promises that the role of the state is to protect the personal freedom of its citizens and to safeguard their dignity and security. The killing of civilians and acts of intimidation and violence are intolerable and must stop. The Australian government has taken a number of steps to pressure the Syrian regime to cease the violence and implement genuine political and economic reform with imposed targeted financial sanctions against those responsible for ordering human rights abuses and the lethal suppression of peaceful protests.

We are bringing pressure to bear against key regime figures responsible for this violence and suppression and have imposed an embargo on arms and other equipment used in the repression of Syrian civilians. We have co-sponsored a resolution in the United Nations Human Rights Council condemning the use of lethal force against protestors. The foreign minister today wrote to the President of the United Nations Security Council referring the Syrian leadership to the International Criminal Court.

Since protests began, diplomats and human rights activists say that as many as 8,000 people have been jailed or are simply missing. Leading dissident Riad Seiff was arrested and imprisoned in 2001, 2008 and, most recently, on 6 May this year. His supposed crime? To build a new political movement—through the Damascus Declaration—to compete with the ruling Ba'ath Party. His movement is based on human rights, pluralism, press and academic freedoms and the building of a civil society.

The right to express one's views and protest peacefully is a right we in Australia take for granted. It is such a part of our heritage and national values that to question our right to do so meets with fierce opposition. Yet in Syria this fundamental democratic and human right comes at a deadly cost. The Syrian people have shown remarkable courage in demanding this for themselves. As one Syrian man, Mohammed al-Dandashi, told journalists, 'They are punishing us for demonstrating against the regime.'

President al-Assad should stop the brutal and fatal suppression by his security forces and support the legitimate democratic aspirations of Syrians by making simple yet profound choices: stability over instability, growth over decay, peace over violence, trust over suspicion and confidence over fear. These are the characteristics of a modern nation that is a responsible global citizen and whose people are empowered to take advantage of the opportunities this century presents. These are the choices now faced by President al-Assad.

I am proud to be part of a government that, when it sees abuses and violations of human rights here or overseas, takes decisive action because it is the decent thing to do. Perhaps Syrian poet and dissident Faraj Ahmad Bayrakdar best described the overwhelming desire of his people for democratic and universal human freedoms when he wrote from within Saydnaya prison, 'Freedom is a homeland and my country an exile.'

By coincidence, Joe Hockey spoke on the same topic straight after me. His speech is well worth reading.http://www.youtube.com/v/SQPhUa2dpBw?version=3&hl=en_US
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Safety at Work

I spoke in parliament yesterday in favour of new legislation that restores workers' compensation coverage to public servants who are injured during recess breaks.
Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2011
1 June 2011


In 2006, a Commonwealth public servant in Queensland told the story of having sprained an ankle just two metres from the front door of his building while going out for a lunch break. Would any of us reasonably think that that was not a workplace accident? Would any of us reasonably seek to deny someone who suffered such an injury fair compensation? The Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2011 may look technical, but in its essence it is about fairness and it is about equity. If you have ever been injured at work, you know that it can be a time of incredible stress and uncertainty. This bill provides greater assurance to employees covered by the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act about their rights and entitlements. This bill also expands the application of the SRC Act to ensure that people deployed on dangerous missions, whether here or overseas, have greater certainty about their workers compensation coverage.

The recess breaks amendment reinstates a previously held entitlement to workers compensation insurance coverage for workers on unpaid recess breaks. Leaving work for a coffee, for lunch or for an appointment during your own time currently leaves public servants without workers compensation coverage. This means that public servants participating in a lunchtime stroll around Lake Burley Griffin are left without workers compensation coverage, even when the walk is part of a charity activity supported by their department. People who slip on the frosty Canberra grass on a winter's morning on their way to warm up with a coffee or a hot chocolate are denied coverage for any injury they sustain.

Under current arrangements, workers on a recess break may only claim some compensation through their motor vehicle insurance. So the workers who are punished by these Howard government reforms removing coverage for recess breaks are those workers who are being more socially and environmentally responsible. Restoring this coverage to workers covered by the Comcare scheme is important to me as the member for Fraser, not just because of the significant number of Australian Public Service employees living in my electorate but also because the Comcare scheme covers employees of the Australian Capital Territory government. Additionally, employees of non-Commonwealth licensees that self-insure under the Comcare scheme will see those rights restored to their working conditions. The rights restored by this bill apply to ACT government employees as well as Australian government employees. Unusually for public sector workers, ACT government employees are not able to lobby or negotiate with their direct employer over their workers compensation arrangements. In that respect, as their representative here in the big house in Canberra, I feel an additional duty to ensure that the rights of these workers are improved.

Workers compensation coverage is a basic right in Australia. Most voters would reasonably expect that if an employee is injured by their work or while carrying out their work then they should be compensated for their injury. I need to be clear here and stress again to the House that workers compensation coverage for employees on recess breaks is not a new entitlement. It restores a right previously held by Commonwealth and ACT government employees from the introduction of workers compensation insurance in 1988 right up until 2006 when, as a part of then Prime Minister John Howard's broader attacks on the rights of workers, the Liberal and National parties saw fit to deny their own public servants rights enjoyed by workers across other jurisdictions in Australia. In fact, South Australia and Tasmania are the only two jurisdictions aside from those in the Comcare scheme that do not provide workers compensation coverage for their employees during recess breaks. It is a right enjoyed by most Australian workers that must be restored to workers covered by the Comcare scheme.

As well as restoring rights, extension of workers compensation coverage to recess breaks removes a substantial number of grey areas. Think about the following situations: an employee leaves work for a coffee with their supervisor to discuss a range of work related issues; an employee takes a work related telephone call on their lunch break; an employee runs into a contact or a colleague on their lunch break and proceeds to have a long conversation about a work related matter; and a group of employees attend a work lunch. Restoration of workers compensation coverage for recess breaks means that workers at workplaces that do not provide on-site lunch facilities are not offered different treatment to workers lucky enough to have on-site lunch facilities. Similarly, work sponsored health and fitness activities that occur off-site during breaks currently leave employees exposed to situations where they are not covered by workers compensation, and have left employers reluctant to encourage off-site health initiatives. I am proud that my local public sector workplaces encourage their employees to get out of the workplace during their unpaid lunch break to undertake community activities, healthy activities and fitness activities. But I am disappointed that the current law acts as a disincentive for people to participate in these healthy activities.

There are plenty of examples around Canberra of healthy lunchtime activities. There are walking clubs, there is netball, Tai Chi, Pilates and Zumba. Department of Defence employees use onsite gyms, badminton courts and pool facilities, participate in lunchtime competitions including volleyball, touch football, basketball and softball, and participate in lunchtime classes including aerobics, weights, resistance training and ballroom dancing. The way the laws currently stand, it is unclear whether the employees would be covered for workers compensation purposes in these situations. Breaks during the working day cannot always be divided neatly into 'working' and 'not working'. We need laws that recognise the diversity and flexibility of working arrangements.

As to time limits, this bill adds further benefits and protections to workers by introducing statutory time limits for the determination of claims. Procedural rights can be just as important as substantive rights to allow people to access their entitlements. Without time limits an application for compensation could technically be allowed to sit with a decision maker for days, weeks, months or years on end before a decision is finally made. Administrative law has long recognised the need for decisions by government to be made in a timely manner. Introducing time limits provides assurance to workers in the Comcare scheme that their claim will be dealt with by a particular date. Making these limits a statutory right rather than an administrative process means that these rights are given greater prominence and certainty. Claimants can rely on the laws to remain constant and reliable.

For those that have suffered an injury at work, uncertainty about their workers compensation claim can cause considerable distress. People who suffer an injury at work, and are unable to attend work as a result, are forced to sit at home and wonder about when they will be able to return to full health and return to work. It can be an incredibly distressing time and it allows plenty of time for the injured worker to worry about their claim and their entitlements. Providing as much assurance and certainty as we can about when and how a worker will know their precise entitlements is a key step forward in ensuring that our workers compensation system is as effective as possible at getting people back into work. Evidence in the Comcare review showed that Comcare had a much lower rate than the national average for assessing and determining claims. Providing statutory time limits should encourage Comcare to provide the same level of service to workers covered under that scheme as workers from other jurisdictions.

I have long supported the principle of policy based on considered evidence. The changes to time limits proposed in the bill arose from the review of Comcare conducted by the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations. Statistics about these time limits leave me convinced that without an adequate statutory requirement workers will continue to be denied important rights with respect to their workers compensation.

One new aspect of this bill, which was not a part of the Comcare review, is the extension of workers compensation coverage to particular areas or particular classes of employees. The bill amends the SRC Act to provide workers compensation coverage for injuries sustained while an employee is working in a 'declared place' outside Australia. This is above and beyond any existing extraterritoriality provisions and will provide additional certainty for employees on overseas postings about their workers compensation entitlements. This means that the relevant minister can declare high-risk places, such as Afghanistan and Iraq, to be places where workers compensation coverage will be continuous for all Commonwealth employees. The very act of being in a dangerous situation, as determined by the minister, means that a worker is deemed to continuously be at work and any injuries sustained while in that dangerous place as a result of work will be compensable.

The changed coverage also applies where a person is a member of a 'declared category' of employees whose work requires deployment to places outside Australia. The need for this flexibility arises specifically in relation to the establishment of the Australian Civilian Corps, who will assist in disaster relief, stabilisation and postconflict resolution in developing countries and failed states. The effect of these changes will be to provide 24/7 coverage under the SRC Act for employees exposed to unusually high risks while working outside Australia.

I spoke recently at the Lowy Institute about the need for targeted, effective foreign aid. The Australian Civilian Corps is very much in this mould. It will provide expertise where it is most needed: after natural disasters or in times of acute stress. We have a duty to help our neighbours and an obligation to provide our expertise on a global scale. But in providing this aid we should recognise that the Australian government still has a role in protecting its people who are sent into these dangerous situations and should ensure that their workers compensation is assured and not left open to interpretation or confusion. Providing continuous workers compensation coverage for such groups will also assure them, both before and during their deployment, that there is a safety net in case anything goes wrong during their deployment.

I am proud to be part of a political party that always seeks to look after the rights of workers. I am proud to be part of a political party that looks after the substantive and procedural rights of people who are unfortunate enough to be injured at work. This bill goes some way to undoing the damage of the Howard years on public servants in Canberra and throughout Australia—those working for the Australian government or the ACT government, as well as non-Commonwealth licensees. I am also proud to be a part of a political party that recognises its obligations when new and challenging situations arise for people carrying out work in our name in places of high risk or danger. I commend this bill to the House.
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Common Ground

I spoke in parliament yesterday about tackling homelessness, through a model known as 'Common Ground'.
Homelessness, 31 May 2011

With her voice shaking and fighting back tears, she says:

'It is horrendous being homeless. You feel so disconnected from other beings and you feel so ashamed to be homeless. I absolutely believed I was worthless and that nothing would change.'

Breaking down, she continues:

'I cannot remember the last time I had a place to call home, somewhere I was safe.'

Asked when the last time she felt safe was, she wipes the tears from her eyes and whispers:

'I cannot remember.'

Suzie, a 39-year-old single mother of two, is one of 570 Australians who by the middle of next year will be living in a Common Ground apartment. Susie will have a place to call home, to feel safe and from which to rebuild her life. Housing affordability and homelessness was the number one issue raised when I held a community sector roundtable in March. In the 2006 census around a thousand Canberrans were recorded as being homeless.

Founded by New Yorker Rosemary Haggerty in 1990, Common Ground offers homeless people permanent, affordable, safe and high-quality supported housing. Common Ground is about providing stability, support and hope to the homeless where there was none before. Currently, Common Ground has projects in Adelaide and Melbourne, with Sydney, Brisbane and Hobart coming on line next year.

Here in Canberra a team of dedicated people have been working tirelessly to provide support and hope to those who are homeless in the ACT through our very own Common Ground project. I hope this project will become an intrinsic part of tackling homelessness in Canberra. Through the project, there are plans to build up to 100 one- and two-bedroom apartments in Reid for singles and families; to provide them with affordable, attractive, well-managed and permanent accommodation; to house the most vulnerable and link them to support services; to offer the safety and security of having a 24-hour seven days a week concierge service; and to provide opportunities for people to regain control of their lives.

I want to pay tribute to the Common Ground board: the Chair, Stephen Bartos; Jon Lovell; Peter Sandeman; Simon Rosenberg; Captain Jennifer Wheatley; Diane Kargass AM; David Mathews; and finally the inspirational program coordinator and the person who has assembled this great team, Liz Dawson.

The last word belongs to Suzie, who says:

'Today I have hope in my life. Today I have a belief that I can try everything. Today it is different. I am somebody. It is an amazing gift I have been given, a second chance to build a life I never thought I would have.'
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Chris Bourke MLA

Congratulations to Chris Bourke MLA



Federal Member for Fraser, Andrew Leigh has congratulated Chris Bourke on being declared the new Member for Ginninderra today.

Dr Bourke is a passionate advocate for Indigenous Australians and brings to the Legislative Assembly his many years of experience in small business and the healthcare sector.

With over 16 years of service as a local dentist, Dr Bourke has a unique insight into the community he now represents. He is an active member in many local community organisations.

Like his predecessor Jon Stanhope, Dr Bourke shares a passion for the Canberra and has worked hard for our city.

I look forward to working closely with Dr Bourke to strengthen our community by boosting employment, assisting small business, delivering better health care and improving education.
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The Power of Information

I moved a private members' motion yesterday on the benefits of putting more information in the public domain.
MYSCHOOL, MYHOSPITALS AND MYCHILD WEBSITES
On the motion of Dr Leigh—That this House:
(1) recognises:
(a)  Australians are keen to have better access to information about government performance;
(b) more transparent public services have been shown to perform at higher levels; and
(c) greater access to information helps Australians make the best choices; and
(2)  commends the Australian Government on the creation of the MySchool, MyHospitals and MyChild websites.

MySchool, MyHospitals and MyChild, 30 May 2011

Four hundred years ago, Sir Francis Bacon made a simple observation. He said, 'Knowledge itself is power.' This motion recognises the transformative power of information. When we put information in the hands of voters we help people make the best choices for themselves and their families. Providing information also helps improve public services which are crucial to boosting productivity growth in Australia. This motion focuses on three websites created by the Australian government: MySchool, MyChild and MyHospitals.

MySchool

The myschool.edu.au website allows schools, teachers, parents and the community to compare schools serving statistically similar backgrounds and to compare all schools in Australia. It allows parents to identify and learn about high-performing schools, including schools in which significant student progress is demonstrated. Under MySchool 2.0, parents can now look at student gain over time and they can learn about the financial resources available to the school. Since the MySchool website was launched at the start of last year, over 5 million people have visited the site.

MyChild

The mychild.gov.au website helps parents find childcare options suitable for their needs. It allows parents to find information about the childcare places in their area and assistance with childcare costs. The website now includes information about vacancies across the full range of age groups and information on both permanent and casual vacancies. In the last 12 months alone, the MyChild website has had over 420,000 visits. The website also links to useful information for parents such as children's health and wellbeing, and parenting and family support services.

MyHospitals

The myhospitals.gov.au website provides information on bed numbers, patient admissions, hospital accreditation, types of specialised services. It also provides national public hospital performance statistics such as waiting times for elective surgery and emergency. It helps patients choose the hospital that is right for them and allows everyone to compare the performance of their local hospital with other hospitals around Australia.

Better Information

These websites were opposed at the time of their creation. Some education insiders opposed the MySchool website. The Australian Medical Association and some state governments opposed the MyHospitals website. The opposition recently has been critical of the updated MySchool 2.0 website, preferring instead to keep financial information secret from Australian families. Opposition to data release has been based around two arguments. First, critics argue the performance measures are imperfect. This is undoubtedly true but it sets the bar too high. We should always strive to improve the quality of information but the perfect should never become the enemy of the good. Second, those who oppose data being released claim it will lead to underperforming institutions being stigmatised. But so long as the data are collected so as to minimise the potential for manipulation and provide the broadest possible set of indicators, it will help identify the strongest and weakest institutions. Rather than allowing poor performance to continue under a veil of secrecy, we should let a little sunlight in.

We also put in evidence that more information raises overall performance. In the case of school reporting, Stanford University researchers Martin Carnoy and Susanna Loeb found strong evidence that those US states that provided more public information about school performance experienced more rapid growth in maths scores. Similarly, Eric Hanushek and Margaret Raymond found that students in countries which published school performance data tended to do better on international exams.

The same is true of hospitals. In his book Better: Asurgeon's notes on performance, medical writer Atul Gawande discusses the impact performance information had on the treatment of cystic fibrosis, a genetic disease that impedes lung capacity. While patients at the average treatment centre would typically live to 33, those at the best centre lived to 47. Over recent decades the life expectancy of cystic fibrosis patients has increased substantially as treatment innovations have percolated down to the leading centres.

Making school and hospital performance information publicly available should help everyone. There are good reasons to think the poor may benefit more than the rich. In a low-information environment, information is restricted to insiders who share it with their friends. Publishing statistical data helps democratise access to information, allowing everyone to see what the insiders already know. The more comprehensive public data is, the less individuals need to rely on questionable sources of information.
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Bob Gould

I spoke in parliament yesterday about the passing of left-wing activist and Newtown bookseller Bob Gould.
Bob Gould, 30 May 2011

I rise to pay tribute to Newtown bookseller Bob Gould, who passed away on 22 May 2011 aged 74. Bob was part of the progressive left in Australia for the better part of the post-war era. From the Vietnam War to asylum seekers, he has marched and argued for what he believed in. As former New South Wales MLC Meredith Burgmann noted, 'He was involved in most of the great political protest movements of the time.'

Bob did live through interesting times. He was one of three people who chased down and restrained the man who tried to kill Arthur Calwell after an anti-conscription rally in 1966. His bookstores were raided for stocking such scurrilous works as Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint and pictures of Michelangelo's David.

Most students who attended the University of Sydney have a story about Gould's Books. Mine came when I was walking down an aisle and brushed past two precarious stacks of books on either side. Both collapsed on me, trapping me for about five minutes, until Bob heard my cries for help and ambled over.

Although he was a Labor Party member Bob was probably to the left of everyone in the current federal parliament. Yet even my libertarian friend Sinclair Davidson has noted Bob's passing, and recalled fondly his time buying books at Bob's bookstore. Through his activism and his bookstore, Bob Gould injected ideas and energy into the public debate. He will be missed.
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A Plain Suggestion

My AFR op-ed today discusses the evidence in favour of plain packaging for tobacco as a way of reducing smoking rates.
Cigarettes: The Plain Facts, Australian Financial Review, 31 May 2011

A family friend has been a chain smoker for the past sixty years. Last week, doctors discovered the cancer that has eaten away at his larynx. If he wants to get rid of it, he will need an eight-hour operation, which will leave him speaking through an artificial voicebox. As you read this, he is deciding whether it might be better just to give the game away altogether.

If tobacco had been discovered in 2011, it’s unlikely that most developed countries would legalise it. Uniquely, smoking is harmful even in small doses. This makes it unlike other legal vices, which can be consumed in moderation. The occasional double whiskey or deep-fried mars bar won’t kill you – but as the ad says ‘every cigarette brings cancer closer’.

Because cigarettes are such an abnormal product, the government is aiming to take away one of the tobacco industry’s last avenues for promotion: an attractive pack design. Described as ‘the silent salesman’, cigarette companies have long relied on slick packets to communicate to consumers not merely the desirability of their product, but also to reach out to particular target groups, such as youth, women, or consumers wanting a milder product.

In marketing jargon, cigarettes are known as a ‘badge product’, because the packaging is frequently displayed to others. As one industry insider put it, ‘if you smoke, a cigarette pack is one of the few things you use regularly that makes a statement about you. A cigarette pack is the only thing you take out of your pocket 20 times a day and lay out for everyone to see. That’s a lot different than buying your soap powder in generic packaging.’

Plain packaging isn’t just about replacing blue chevrons, sunsets, luxury golds and powerful blues with a decidedly un-sexy olive green background. It’s also about increasing the impact of the health warnings, since past research has shown that people take health warnings less seriously when they sit alongside brand imagery. With pictures of diseased teeth and eyes, mock-ups of the new cigarette packages look like something out of a medical textbook.

Yes, but will it work? Although no country has yet implemented plain packaging, medical researchers have run a spate of laboratory experiments to see how people’s perceptions of cigarettes change as design elements are progressively removed from the pack. For example, a 2009 study by Daniella Germain and coauthors recruited Australian adolescents (smokers and nonsmokers). The researchers then randomly showed them either regular cigarette packages, plain packages, or something in between. As branding was removed, adolescents became less positive about the kinds of people who smoked that cigarette, and more negative about its taste.

The laboratory evidence accords with what the tobacco industry has found in its street surveys. One marketing report (released as part of the US tobacco settlement) mournfully noted: ‘when we offered them Marlboros at half price – in generic brown boxes – only 21% were interested, even though we assured them that each package was fresh, had been sealed at the factory and was identical (except for the different packaging) to what they normally bought at their local, tobacconist or cigarette machine.’

Not surprisingly, the tobacco industry has reacted vehemently to plain packaging legislation, arguing that it will lead them to cut prices. From an economic standpoint, it is hard to see why this should occur. Price wars are generally a reaction to a temporary change in market conditions (such as the entry of a highly-leveraged competitor) – not to long-run changes in the market environment. The industry has also claimed that plain packaging will boost the illegal market, a strange claim given that many black market cigarettes are already sold in plain packages.

Since the 1980s (when I was an adolescent), the national smoking rate has fallen from 31 percent to 17 percent. Yet the smoking rate remains considerably higher for disadvantaged groups: 26 percent among people living in low socioeconomic areas, 34 percent among Indigenous Australians, and 38 among the unemployed. Smokers in these groups also consume 15-20 percent more cigarettes than the average smoker.

If we are to close the life expectancy gap between rich and poor, and between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, then cutting smoking rates is vital. Along with higher cigarette taxes, subsidised nicotine patches and anti-smoking advertisements, plain packaging should help reduce cigarette consumption. It may be too late for my family friend, but there’s still time to make smoking an ugly choice for today’s youth.

Andrew Leigh is the federal member for Fraser.
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Tobacco Donations


Private Members' Business
Tobacco Products, 30 May 2011


Each year 15,000 Australians die from smoking. That means 41 people a day. By the time this debate has concluded, an Australian will have died because she smoked. We also know that smokers harm those around them—children who inhale passive smoke, or the one-in-six babies born to mothers who smoked while pregnant. Smoking rates in regional areas are twice as high as in the cities, and people in the bush have higher death rates from lung cancer, heart disease, asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

These are the stark realities of smoking. Yet there remain groups in this place that continue to profit from this reality. The self-proclaimed party of responsibility refuses to take responsibility for the devastating impact of tobacco on Australians' health. And the self-proclaimed party of the bush shows less concern for the health of rural Australians than the property rights of tobacco companies.

Last week I received an email from a constituent about why we should support the Prime Minister and the Minister for Health and Ageing in their efforts to reduce smoking rates. The constituent wrote:

'My great-grandfather, grandfather, father and one of my uncles all died from smoking-related conditions. Each of the latter three died 20-30 years before the life expectancy for their generation. My father's addiction contributed to two decades of poor health prior to his premature death, resulting in frequent periods where he was unable to work.

'My siblings and I grew up in poverty, the effects of which are still evident, and the taxpayer bore the cost of his many hospitalisations as well as the cumulative years of income support our family depended on in lieu of employment. I say this so that you will understand my absence of sympathy for the 'principle argument', that tobacco companies have a right to make a profit from pushing legal drugs.'

I was proud to join the Minister for Health and Ageing and the Minister for Indigenous Health earlier this year at the launch of an ad campaign designed by Indigenous Australians to help reduce Indigenous smoking rates, rates that are twice as high as for non-Indigenous Australians and a major contributor to the life expectancy gap. Yet those opposite seem set on blocking common-sense reforms like higher tobacco excise or the plain packaging of cigarettes. As with their stance on climate change, they are the ‘Party of No'. There is a precedent for this kind of nay-saying. Former opposition leader Billy Snedden said about the link between smoking and diseases such as lung cancer and heart disease: 'So far I have not seen any conclusive evidence to that effect and, as I understand the position, there is still some argument on the question.' The Leader of the Opposition today is like his predecessor of yore. Mr Abbott's denial of the science of climate change is the modern-day equivalent of Billy Snedden's denial of the link between smoking and cancer.

In Merchants of Doubt, Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway document some remarkable parallels between the debate over climate change and earlier debates over tobacco smoking, acid rain and the hole in the ozone layer. In each case, those opposed to action tried to sow doubt. Oreskes and Conway quote a 1969 memo in which a tobacco industry executive makes clear the strategy: 'Doubt is our product, since it is the best means of competing with the body of fact that exists in the minds of the public.'

As late as 1995, Senator Minchin doubted the link between smoking and adverse health effects, yet even he has now come around. If a warhorse like Senator Minchin can change his mind and accept the science, there is hope for anyone. The Leader of the Opposition wrote in his book Battlelines:

'Conservatism prefers facts to theory, practical demonstration to metaphysical abstraction; what works to what's in the mind's eye … Conservatives are not optimists or pessimists but realists.'

On both climate change and smoking, the science is settled—and the solutions are clear. All that stands  in the way are big polluters and big tobacco.

I know there are some in the Liberal and National Parties who are concerned about going cold turkey on accepting donations from big tobacco. But I can assure them that we will help them through this. We can offer them counselling. We will walk them through this. And they will have the best nicotine patch of all: the knowledge that they have, at long last, done the right thing for the health of young Australians.
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Commonwealth Pensions

I spoke last week about retirement benefits for military personnnel and former public servants.
Indexation of Military Pensions, 23 May 2011

The indexation of military pensions and superannuation is an issue that, as the member for Fraser, I am very familiar with. Over at least the last year I have been working with colleagues Senator Kate Lundy, Mike Kelly, the federal member for Eden-Monaro and Gai Brodtmann, the member for Canberra, along with the Defence Force Welfare Association, the Superannuated Commonwealth Officers Association and the Australian Council of Public Sector Retiree Organisations, in making representations regarding the indexation of military superannuation pensions as well as those for Commonwealth employees. This is an important issue that affects the lives of many in my electorate and others who have given committed service to the Australian public and the interests of our nation. Reforms to the indexation of military superannuation pensions must be undertaken in a responsible and sustainable manner, one that requires the economic understanding and responsibility that the Labor government has shown in guiding Australia through the global financial crisis and returning the budget to surplus in 2012-13.

The Defence Force Retirement and Death Benefits Amendment Bill 2011 demonstrates yet again the divisive approach of the opposition and the fact that once again they cannot be entrusted with fiscal matters and matters as important as the ongoing funding of military superannuation pensions. Those who have served in the protection of our nation deserve better than fiscal incompetence and recklessness in their retirement livelihoods.

Military service is a special vocation with unique requirements. These include the compulsory and continuous liability for combat operations; being subject to both the civil legal code and a separate Defence Force disciplinary code to support command structures for effective conduct of combat operations and training; the requirement to work long and irregular hours for which no overtime is payable; separation from families, sometimes for considerable periods of time, which as I know with many Defence Force members in my electorate can be a cause of stress to both members and their families; the posting of members at regular intervals to meet Australian Defence Force manning requirements; and the requirement to maintain a high standard of both physical and mental fitness required to meet operational tasks and training for combat.

In recognition of the demands these requirements place on Defence Force personnel, military superannuation is one of the key elements in the competitive remuneration and conditions of service package provided to Australian Defence Force members. Established by the Keating government in 1991, the Military Superannuation and Benefits Scheme was introduced to address major changes the government had made to both the regulatory system and the regulations governing superannuation. The Defence Force Retirement and Death Benefits Scheme provides an indexed pension calculated on a combination of salary and length of service. Members who discharge after 20 years are able to take an immediate lifetime pension based on 35 per cent of the member's salary at discharge. These pensions, which can be taken as early as 38 years of age, continue to be paid even if the former member returns to the workforce. The percentage of final salary increases with each year of service. For example, at 30 years of service the pension is 51.25 per cent of final salary and at 40 years of service it is 76.5 per cent of final salary. As at 30 June last year, there were 3,978 pensioners in the Defence Forces Retirement Benefits scheme, and 4,246 contributors and 53,003 pensioners—15,193 of those under the age of 55—in the Defence Force Retirement and Death Benefits scheme. Military superannuation arrangements are based on salary and the length of a member's period of service. They are not based on, nor do they aim to reflect, a member's needs in retirement. To change military superannuation indexation arrangements would effectively mean a change to a member's preretirement conditions of service after the member has retired.

If allowed to proceed, the opposition's bill would present several issues. Firstly, a proposed law that would appropriate revenue or moneys cannot originate as a private member's bill, and a bill for such a law cannot originate in the Senate. Secondly, the Defence Force Retirement and Death Benefits Amendment (Fair Indexation) Bill as introduced by Senator Ronaldson would have a fiscal cost of $1.7 billion over four years and an underlying cash cost of $175 million over four years. It would increase the Commonwealth unfunded liabilities by $6.2 billion. Yet it would provide nothing more to recipients of the Commonwealth civilian superannuation pension. Indeed, the opposition's view of public servants was made clear by the member for Fadden, who clearly suggested that savings to pay for these pensions should be made up by Public Service cuts. The opposition's bill would also provide nothing to many recipients of military pensions.

On 9 February 2011, along with Senator Lundy and the members for Canberra and Eden-Monaro, I wrote to Senator Penny Wong asking that the Department of Finance and Deregulation estimate the costs regarding indexation changes in Commonwealth government civilian and military superannuation scheme pensions. The department's estimate stated that, firstly, the cost of indexing military and civilian pensions by the age pension methodology would be $322 million for the period 2011-12 to 2014-15, with an immediate increase in unfunded superannuation liabilities of $32.9 billion. Secondly, the cost of indexing military and civilian pensions by the higher of CPI, the pensioner and beneficiary living cost index and the increase in male average total weekly earnings would be $614 million for the period 2011-12 to 2014-15, with an immediate increase in unfunded superannuation liabilities of $47.8 billion.

Thirdly, and most importantly, the proposals in this bill would only benefit a minority of military superannuants. The bill does not provide any indexation change for the 3,978 benefit recipients from the Defence Forces Retirement Benefits scheme. The bill does not provide any change for any of the 7,684 pensioners under the Military Superannuation and Benefits Scheme. Nor does this bill provide for the 15,193 Defence Force Retirement and Death Benefits scheme recipients under age 55. Nor does it provide for the needs of Commonwealth civilian superannuants.

The coalition's policy to index military pensions for members of the Defence Forces Retirement Benefits scheme and the Defence Force Retirement and Death Benefits scheme who are aged 55 and over would not provide financial security for Australian Defence Force personnel. Superannuation pensions paid by the government to its retired military personnel are indexed twice annually to reflect quarterly changes in the price of a basket of goods and services which account for a high proportion of expenditure by the consumer price index population group.

The Gillard government honoured its 2007 election commitment to review the indexation arrangements for superannuation pensions that it pays to retired civilian employees and military personnel. The review of pension indexation arrangements in Australian government civilian and military superannuation schemes was conducted by Mr Trevor Matthews. In December 2008 the Matthews report of the review of pension indexation arrangements in Australian government civilian and military superannuation schemes recommended that pensions continue to be indexed against CPI to protect against inflation increases. The report also identified very significant additional costs that would be incurred if indexation methodology were changed. The Australian Government Actuary has also pointed to significant additional costs if the coalition policy, the subject of this bill, were adopted. The significant costs of higher indexation would have to be found from the Consolidated Revenue Fund or from the existing defence budget. This would jeopardise the funding of other initiatives. Over recent years, various groups have campaigned to change the indexation of public service and military pensions from the CPI to an analytical cost of living index. They have argued that compared to other pensions their level of indexation is not fair or equitable in terms of being able to maintain contemporary living standards, and that the CPI is ineffective as a measure of the change in the cost of living. Recommendation 4 of the Matthews report indicated that if a more suitable index became available the government should consider its use. With the adoption of the pensioner and beneficiary living cost index for age and other pensions, I am hopeful that such an index for Commonwealth superannuants, including those on defence pensions, will soon be developed.

ADFA and the Royal Military College of Australia are in the electorate of Fraser, and on 10 April I represented the Prime Minister and laid a wreath commemorating the 70th anniversary of the siege of Tobruk at the Rats of Tobruk memorial. I had the privilege of sitting next to Peter Collins, a veteran who was a signal operator at Tobruk. I am proud of the commitment and dedication of the men and women who provide military service to our nation every time I meet with them in my role as federal member.
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Taking off from Gloomy World

Back in 2006, Justin Wolfers and I took issue with a pair of UK researchers who'd claimed that Australians ranked poorly on international surveys of happiness and life satisfaction. I'm delighted to say that new OECD findings back up our optimism. A good news story indeed.

Update: For a fair dinkum shake of the sauce bottle, have a geeze at Justin Wolfers bonzer post.
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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.