Finding a Voice

Australia’s Prime Minister recently announced his Government’s plans to hold a national referendum on the “Indigenous Voice to Parliament“. The Voice is a key outcome from the Uluru Statement from the Heart, and the path towards Treaty and Truth. It will require amendments to the Australian Constitution. The inevitable debate about the detail, purpose and scope to be enshrined in the Voice has now been heightened by the death of Queen Elizabeth II, and related issues of Australia’s pre- and post-colonial history, the experience of Federation and the fate of the Republican movement.

NAIDOC guide to Indigenous place names in Australia (image sourced from SBS)

One of the first comments in the wake of the Prime Minister’s announcement came from the Green Party, who indicated that their support for the Voice would be conditional on there being a Treaty first. Indeed, Greens Senator Lidia Thorpe called the proposed referendum “a waste of money”, indicating that she wanted to see a Treaty with Indigenous Australians before any talk of a Republic. Since the Queen’s death, it seems the Senator has changed her mind, and is now calling for both a Treaty and a Republic. But the Prime Minister has determined that the first order of business for his Government is the Voice, and that the Republican debate is not for his first term in office.

The question to be presented in the Referendum will be:

“Do you support an alteration to the Constitution that establishes an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice?”

And the proposed additions to the Constitution would read something like this:

1.There shall be a body, to be called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice.
2.The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice may make representations to Parliament and the Executive Government on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples.
3.The Parliament shall, subject to this Constitution, have power to make laws with respect to the composition, functions, powers and procedures of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice.

While refusing to be drawn on the precise details of the Voice, the Prime Minister has defined what it is NOT going to be: “Not a third chamber, not a rolling veto, not a blank cheque.” Meanwhile, two bodies have been appointed to prepare for the Referendum proposal and implementation: the Referendum Working Group, and the Referendum Engagement Group, whose terms of reference are not entirely clear – and Senator Thorpe complained that the appointees “did not represent First Nations voices”.

Given the history of Referendums in Australia (most notably the failure of the Republican Movement to secure a “Yes” vote in 1999), it’s understandable that people are either wary about the form of the question and/or the Constitutional amendments, or are concerned about the apparent lack of detail that the Government has so far provided on the remit of the Voice. There is a possibility that the electorate votes “Yes” in the Referendum, but that agreement cannot be reached on the changes to the Constitution, or the structure of the Voice. So it’s understandable that some people are seeking more detail, or at least more clarity.

Whatever the sequence of events (Voice, Treaty, Republic?), it’s going to be a complicated process. For example, putting the Republic before the Voice may mean that the latter becomes redundant, assuming the Republican Constitution embeds principles such as the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. And Treaty before Republic would mean that the agreement(s) would be between the First Nations people and the Australian Constitutional Monarchy, whose Head of State is now King Charles III.

Perhaps that is the point – the formal process of healing, reconciliation and reparation cannot be meaningfully done without some involvement by the British Crown, in whose name Indigenous lands were appropriated in 1788. But does that potentially “absolve” Australia’s post-Federation Governments and Administrations from any responsibility for the act of British colonisation? Since Federation in 1901, Australia has had ample opportunity to make amends. It is no longer possible to suggest that any change to the Australian Constitution would require Royal Assent by the King or Queen in person – the purely ceremonial role of the British Monarchy in respect to Australia’s domestic affairs has always been predicated on the advice from both the Governor General (who serves as the Monarch’s local representative, and who gives Royal Assent to Australian Acts of Parliament), and Australia’s own government ministers and civil servants. In any event, it’s long been understood that the Crown would not prevent Australia becoming a Republic; in effect, the Crown could not intervene in any Constitutional amendment. Such a change is entirely a matter for the Australian Parliament.

The Westminster Act of 1931 confirmed that Australia is an independent state able to form its own foreign policy and defence free from British control; and the Australia Act 1986 formally severed all remaining legal ties between Australia and the United Kingdom except for the Monarchy. So a Treaty with Indigenous peoples could have been possible since 1901 when the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act came into force, heralding Federation. (Interestingly, King Charles III has had to be proclaimed by the Federal Government, and by each State – which might suggest the need for multiple Treaties?)

Another argument against embodying the Voice within the framework of the current Australian Constitutional Monarchy is because it would appear to “ratify” colonisation, and thereby imply Sovereignty had been granted (retrospectively?) to the Crown, which would therefore negate the need for Treaty. Indeed, the whole point of Treaty is to re-assert that Indigenous Sovereignty was never ceded, and that unlike other British colonies such as Canada and New Zealand, the British Crown has never attempted to negotiate any form of direct agreement with the Indigenous Nations of Australia.

Alternatively, Associate Professor Hannah McGlade has stated that a national Treaty needs a national body to negotiate (hence a key purpose of the Voice).  Further, she argues that Aboriginal Sovereignty relates to the “right to shape the national dialogue” on issues of primary concern to the Indigenous population. While not quite equating to full self-determination, it does provide a persuasive argument in favour of establishing the Voice to Parliament.

Finally, some other factors to consider as we move through this multi-faceted debate on Treaty, the Republic, and defining Australia’s post-colonial, post-Federation and post-Monarchy identity:

1. A Republic is no guarantee of getting Treaty right – indeed, look at the number of republics that have ridden rough-shod over their own indigenous and minority peoples – oppression and dictatorship is not the preserve of monarchs and emperors.

2. There is the question of how Crown land in Australia will be resolved, both in relation to Treaty, and the Republic. This would include the commercial arrangements for agriculture, mining and tourism, as well as land development and construction.

3. Inconsistencies in how Indigenous people are acknowledged at public events, meetings and in other similar settings. Here in Victoria, we are very used to some statement of recognition towards Indigenous nations and the traditional custodians of the land, along with their elders past, present and emerging. On my recent trip the Kimberley, I was surprised that no such formal statements were made when visiting culturally significant landmarks, usually under the direction of official tour guides, including National Parks. Not that there was an absence of awareness, knowledge or public signage, but I had expected there might have been a more vocal expression from some of our hosts.

4. Despite the need for a cohesive approach to the Voice and Treaty, it would be a mistake to view the Indigenous populations and their respective Nations as an homogenous entity. Even within Indigenous communities, as in any society, there are differences and inconsistencies. So there will be different demands placed on those charged with navigating the Voice, and negotiating Treaty. But a speedy outcome should not preclude the establishment of a solid consensus. After all, what’s 240 years compared to 50,000?

Next time: TBA

 

 

 

 

 

The Jobs and Skills Summit

Last week’s Jobs and Skills Summit hosted by the Federal Government in Canberra was clearly designed to be a statement of intent by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and his Labor administration. Part policy endorsement, part policy road map, the Summit was hailed (by the Prime Minister at least) for reaching agreement on “36 immediate initiatives”. By all accounts, it was a jolly affair and everyone in the Government sounded very pleased with themselves. The reality is that despite some significant pronouncements, most of them lack detail, many of them relate to existing initiatives, a number of the “36 agreements” were largely concluded and/or telegraphed ahead of the Summit – and of course, the one item that got most attention was the most divisive: the renewed prospect of multi-employer collective bargaining.

Number of Australian companies by employment size, 2018-2022 (Source: ABS)

There were some contentious views about the small business association’s pre-Summit MoU with the ACTU. Some peak industry bodies and other commentators felt that COSBOA had “sold out” in apparently agreeing to sector-wide negotiations on pay and conditions. However, this does not appear to be the case – COSBOA is merely seeking better co-operation and consultation on areas of mutual interest, and is not endorsing any form of enforced unionisation or compulsory sector bargaining. There have been suggestions that sector-wide collective bargaining will result in higher wages, but without more detail, and pending greater clarity on the “Better Off Overall Test”, this will simply add friction to the current debate about wage and employment growth.

If we do return to a previous form of Industrial Relations policy, it’s interesting to look at the latest ABS data on Australian businesses by employment size (table above). I think it’s worth noting the number of working people in Australia who are employed by SMEs. Large employers are actually small in number, so if multi-employer collective bargaining does come into effect, it could mean tens of thousands of businesses will be involved, and many probably for the first time. On the other hand, in an industry like construction, which is both highly unionised and covered by significant industry awards, many workers are either self-employed or they are employed by independent sub-contractors.

Representation at the summit was reasonably well-balanced, between Unions (including Industry Superfunds), Business (individual companies and industry associations), the NFP and Community sectors, Academia, Think Tanks, and of course Politics. The absence of the Leader of the Federal Opposition meant that his voter base was effectively disenfranchised, although his Deputy (and Leader of the National Party) did attend. Go figure.

Much was said about “streamlining” and “updating” parts of the Industrial Relations regime. Like Australia’s tax laws, the system of Modern Awards as overseen by the Fair Work Commission feels unwieldy, unnecessarily complex, over-bureaucratic, at times vague, and often archaic bordering on arcane. There are currently over 140 different awards in place – some of them relate to an individual company, some to a particular trade or profession, and some cover a whole industry. Interpretation is often in the eye of the beholder as to whether or not it applies to a particular employer and/or employee – here is an extract from one award:

“NOTE: Where there is no classification for a particular employee in this award it is possible that the employer and that employee are covered by an industry modern award or a modern award with occupational coverage.” (Emphasis added.)

I should add that one reason given by the Labor Government for removing the prohibition on sector-wide collective bargaining is because the process for employers to request an exemption from the relevant Minister is “too cumbersome”. I don’t see how this is so given that much of the IR system is overly bureaucratic. Surely the reason for this administrative process is to avoid collusion and other cartel-like activities that would otherwise fall foul of competition law and anti-trust provisions.

The Summit had some notable things to say about gender equality and pay parity, (“Legislate same job, same pay”), training, immigration and child care; but some proposals sound vague without defined objectives (“Boost quantum technology research and education”); draconian if they inhibit workplace flexibility, especially in seasonal industries (“Limit the use of fixed-term contracts”); or too aspirational without more detail such as specific goals and measurable targets (“Leverage greater private capital into national priority areas, including housing and clean energy”). We know that Labor ministers have been vocal in their dislike of the so-called “gig economy” (a “cancer” on the economy, and “I’d like to regulate the sh*t out of it”), but perhaps they need to do more to understand why some workers actually prefer it, and what benefits it brings in terms of workplace flexibility, especially in start-ups and emerging sectors, many of which are SMEs from where much of our longer-term innovation and employment opportunities actually come.

One item that didn’t receive as much attention was the “Digital Apprenticeships Scheme”, which (subject to details…) would likely have the combined support of the Tech Council of Australia and the ACTU. Certainly, despite a vibrant and innovative IT sector, and some notable high-tech and high-end manufacturing businesses in Australia, we lag behind in STEM education, and lack basic digital literacy skills in the wider population. (Hence the need for adjustments to the skilled migration scheme?) A friend of mine who runs a small manufacturing business in Melbourne recently hired an Office Assistant. The successful candidate claimed to be proficient in standard productivity tools such as Word and Excel. In fact, they didn’t know how to COPY-PASTE, nor how to use the SUM-ALL function, which are both very basic routines. They thought they could “wing it” by watching a YouTube video…

Finally, if there is one note of caution or concern about the Summit, it is the niggling thought that this was more of a talk-fest, and that any new ideas to have emerged were either covered by existing programmes and “policy settings”, or were already in train. Going through the list of Outcomes, I counted at least three dozen separate initiatives (Plans, Schemes, Agreements, Reports, Statements, Codes, Programs, Compacts, Task Forces, Working Groups or Funds) many of which already exist, or were part of Labor’s election promises, or have been proposed prior to the Summit. (And that list excludes Federal Ministries and Government Departments.) Sounds a lot like “Talks about Talks”, with “new” money already allocated and spoken for (hence Labor’s push back on some of the implied costs of the Summit proposals). At worst, this “wish list” represents a huge amount of expensive and bureaucratic overlay, whereas we need agile and flexible economic, education and employment measures.

Next week: Finding a Voice

An AI Origin Story

Nowadays, no TV or movie franchise worth its salt is deemed complete unless it has some sort of origin story – from “Buzz Lightyear” to “Alien”, from “Mystery Road” to “Inspector Morse”. And as for “Star Wars”, I’ve lost count as to which prequel/sequel/chapter/postscript/spin-off we are up to. Origin stories can be helpful in explaining “what came before”, providing background and context, and describing how we got to where we are in a particular narrative. Reading Jeanette Winterson’s recent collection of essays, “12 Bytes”, it soon becomes apparent that what she has achieved is a tangible origin story for Artificial Intelligence.

Still from “Frankenstein” (1931) – Image sourced from IMDb

By Winterson’s own admission, this is not a science text book, nor a reference work on AI. It’s a lot more human than that, and all the more readable and enjoyable as a result. In any case, technology is moving so quickly these days, that some of her references (even those from barely a year ago) are either out of date, or have been superceded by subsequent events. For example, she makes a contemporaneous reference to a Financial Times article from May 2021, on Decentralized Finance (DeFi) and Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs). She mentions a digital race horse that sold for $125,000. Fast-forward 12 months, and we have seen parts of the nascent DeFi industry blow-up, and an NFT of Jack Dorsey’s first Tweet (Twitter’s own origin story?) failing to achieve even $290 when it went up for auction, having initially been sold for $2.9m. Then there is the Google engineer who claimed that the Lamda AI program is sentient, and the chess robot which broke its opponent’s finger.

Across these stand-alone but interlinked essays, Winterson builds a consistent narrative arc across the historical development, current status and future implications of AI. In particular, she looks ahead to a time when we achieve Artificial General Intelligence, the Singularity, and the complete embodiment of AI, and not necessarily in a biological form that we would recognise today. Despite the dystopian tones, the author appears to be generally positive and optimistic about these developments, and welcomes the prospect of transhumanism, in large part because it is inevitable, and we should embrace it, and ultimately because it might the only way to save our planet and civilisation, just not in the form we expect.

The book’s themes range from: the first human origin stories (sky-gods and sacred texts) to ancient philosophy; from the Industrial Revolution to Frankenstein’s monster; from Lovelace and Babbage to Dracula; from Turing and transistors to the tech giants of today. There are sections on quantum physics, the nature of “binary” (in computing and in transgenderism), biases in algorithms and search engines, the erosion of privacy via data mining, the emergence of surveillance capitalism, and the pros and cons of cryogenics and sexbots.

We can observe that traditional attempts to imagine or create human-made intelligence were based on biology, religion, spirituality and the supernatural – and many of these concepts were designed to explain our own origins, to enforce societal norms, to exert control, and to sustain existing and inequitable power structures. Some of these efforts might have been designed to explain our purpose as humans, but in reality they simply raised more questions than they resolved. Why are we here? Why this planet? What is our destiny? Is death and extinction (the final “End-Time”) the only outcome for the human race? Winterson rigorously rejects this finality as either desirable or inevitable.

Her conclusion is that the human race is worth saving (from itself?), but we have to face up to the need to adapt and continue evolving (homo sapiens was never the end game). Consequently, embracing AI/AGI is going to be key to our survival. Of course, like any (flawed) technology, AI is just another tool, and it is what we do with it that matters. Winterson is rightly suspicious of the male-dominated tech industry, some of whose leaders see themselves as guardians of civil liberties and the saviours of humankind, yet fail to acknowledge that “hate speech is not free speech”. She acknowledges the benefits of an interconnected world, advanced prosthetics, open access to information, medical breakthroughs, industrial automation, and knowledge that can help anticipate danger and avert disaster. But AI and transhumanism won’t solve all our existential problems, and if we don’t have the capacity for empathy, compassion, love, humour, self-reflection, art, satire, creativity, imagination, music or critical thinking, then we will definitely cease to be “human” at all.

The Bibliography to this book is an invaluable resource in itself – and provides for a wealth of additional reading. One book that is not listed, but which might be of interest to her readers, is “Chimera”, a novel by Simon Gallagher, published in 1981 and subsequently adapted for radio and TV. Although this story is about genetic engineering (rather than AI), nevertheless it echoes some of Winterson’s themes and concerns around the morals and ethics of technology (e.g., eugenics, organ harvesting, private investment vs public control, playing god, and the over-emphasis on the preservation and prolongation of human lifeforms as they are currently constituted). Happy reading!

Next week: Digital Perfectionism?

 

Dud Housing*

Recent media commentary suggests we have a housing crisis in Australia – ranging from affordability and supply, to quality and location, as reported here. Renters are being priced out of the market, ageing stock means houses that are too cold in winter or too hot in summer, and there aren’t enough homes to rent where people want to live. I suspect that all of these factors have been in place for several years, but the knock-on effects from the Covid pandemic have exacerbated these trends.

“House” (1993) © Rachel Whiteread. Photo © Rory Manchee

For background, I should explain that at the start of my career, I worked as a housing officer and paralegal in the UK. I worked for three different local councils in inner London, advising tenants, leaseholders and landlords on their respective rights and obligations – and where there were infringements, preparing prosecutions against landlords and their agents. I dealt with people facing harassment, unlawful eviction, homelessness and housing disrepair. Mostly, my work involved advising the parties of their legal position and available remedies, often I helped them reach an amicable solution, and occasionally I had to take enforcement action with the support of the council’s legal powers. The latter included injunctions against the threat of unlawful eviction, the issuance of proper rent records, repair notices, rehousing directives, and even compulsory purchase orders.

It was stressful, and at times confrontational, work – after 5 years, I was pretty burned out, and decided to make a career change. At the time, London (and the UK) was experiencing a huge amount of change that impacted both the public and private rental sectors. First, the Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher had introduced “right to buy” legislation, meaning public housing tenants could apply to buy the homes they lived in. Second, the government also introduced “mortgage interest relief at source” (MIRAS) which meant home buyers received tax relief on their interest payments. Third, central London in particular was going through a period of gentrification, with public money made available to property owners to improve and upgrade period homes. As a result, Georgian and Victorian houses that had been sub-divided into apartments (mainly occupied by long-term tenants) were restored to single family homes. Added to that, one of the council’s I worked for had been engaged in a “homes for votes” scandal, a “policy” to (re-)engineer the local demographics.

In the past, I’ve been both a tenant and a landlord, so I’ve also experienced some of these issues for myself. As a tenant, I’ve had landlords who denied that their properties were poorly wired or had defective plumbing (despite formal notifications from the council), and denied all requests to have the defects fixed. As a landlord, I’ve had tenants sub-letting to their “friends”, and who assured me that these “friends” could pay the rent.

So what is going on in parts of Australia, that there is such a misalignment between where tenants want to live, and vacant housing stock?

First, to touch on property ownership. Home owners don’t receive anything like the former MIRAS scheme in the UK, but there are various financial incentives for first-time buyers (such as zero stamp duty when buying a property off the plan), and during the Covid pandemic, some first-time buyers could access their superannuation (pension) fund to help with the deposit or down-payment. Property investors can take advantage of negative gearing to offset mortgage interest payments and costs of repairs against their income tax. These factors are generally considered to push up house prices – and despite recent interest rate rises, the cost of borrowing has remained at historic lows for more than a decade. Housing inflation means aspiring buyers are priced out of the market (especially as wages have not kept pace with inflation, let alone the rise in property prices). And landlords are now seeking to increase rents to offset rising interest rates.

Second, I’ve never really understood why some landlords don’t maintain their properties to an adequate standard – it surely detracts from the value of their assets, as well as deterring potential tenants. And when there may be improvement funds available (e.g., insulation grants, solar rebates) why wouldn’t they take advantage? On the reverse, should tenants have more powers to undertake essential repairs and improvements, and withhold rent to cover the costs? (Equally, I find it surprising that some tenants don’t feel it is their responsibility to undertake minor maintenance or running repairs, such as mowing the grass, clearing gutters or replacing cracked window panes.)

Third, it’s an economic imperative to have a supply of housing stock in the rental market. It helps people who prefer to rent rather then buy, it allows for workforce mobility, and it supports seasonal demand in industries like agriculture. I don’t believe that all rental stock should be held and managed in the public sector – it represents a huge obligation (not just an asset) on government balance sheets, tying up capital and incurring huge running costs. We need a component of public housing, but otherwise leave it to the private sector, with appropriate safeguards.

Fourth, why the apparent mismatch between supply and demand? On one level, developers are building the wrong types of properties and/or building in the wrong locations. Inner city areas have seen a massive growth in high-rise apartments over the past 20 years, supposedly in response to increased housing demand. In theory, these projects generate more yield for developers, although the apparent over-supply leads to depressed rents, and some banks won’t lend against these properties due to uncertain re-sale value and over-capitalised assets.

In the suburbs, archetypal quarter acre blocks have been sub-divided to cram in more town houses and units, or developers are building bigger houses (McMansions) on smaller plots, leaving minimal gardens and no breathing space between properties, as they build right up to the boundary lines. Many new suburban developments lack proper infrastructure and services (public transport, schools, shops, clinics), making them less attractive to renters – while the owners expect higher rents to cover the cost of their mortgages. Plus, many new properties have been built “on the cheap”, using inferior materials and design – hence the issues with heating/cooling. On the other hand, ageing stock, especially weatherboard and brick veneer structures, can also be hard to heat/cool. Many houses (new and old) lack double-glazing, for example, which would go a long way to resolving this energy conundrum.

Meanwhile, the recent lock downs in Melbourne (and to a lesser extent, Sydney) have meant many urbanites have moved to regional locations, putting upward pressure on property values and rents, pricing out locals who already live and work there. Of course, another reason for the mismatch in supply and demand is the growth in short-term lets, mainly for holiday-makers – such that local stock is taken out of the regular rental market. However, a lot of the Airbnb accommodation I have used over the years would never have been available on the rental market, because they were pre-existing holiday lets, or they are principal homes, where the owners are temporarily working abroad or interstate. And this type of flexible accommodation is also in demand by a mobile workforce that can, and prefers to, work from anywhere (so-called digital nomads).

None of which explains or resolves the current crisis. If governments want to address the bigger issues, they need to consider a range of solutions: updating building standards, upgrading land-use rezoning and planning regulations, encouraging a greater variety of housing development and management (soclal housing, shared ownership, property exchanges, rent holidays in return for repairs and improvements), and the use of modular/portable homes to meet fluctuating demand. All of which requires vision, and most party political objectives are driven by short term goals and the next election cycle.

* Apologies to Pere Ubu for (mis-)appropriating the title of their second album

Next week: Picasso and his circle