Two crazy ideas for the asylum seeker problem

Asylum seeker boat arrivals – fairly inconsequential in real terms – are a major political problem.

Last night on QandA a Labor minister indicated that the “journey” would not be “re-opened” for asylum seekers, indicating a maniacal desire to “stop the boats” is a bipartisan ambition.Screen Shot 2015-07-07 at 11.13.20 am

The racist pandering to Western Sydney inherent in “stopping the boats” was always called out as the bullshit it was. Until the video of the drownings of asylum seekers on the coast of Christmas Island in 2010. Suddenly it was possible to say preventing asylum seekers from arriving in Australia by boat was a moral imperative.

That’s an extreme idea, requiring the sort of broad view of morality that would also support fencing off Australia’s surf beaches to prevent drownings. Most people would say imperative #1 is to not harm people with your actions.

One year ago I wrote about how powerless and ineffective I feel when faced with asylum seeker policy. What’s changed is that the extreme nature of the “solution” – including laws preventing reporting of child abuse – permits a broader range of alternatives that might previously also have been seen as “extreme.”

So is it possible to solve the boat arrivals “problem” without spending billions and becoming a police state? It must be. Lets think outside the box.

1. Make a queue

People are always fighting about queue jumpers, and whether there is a queue. What if we made an actual queue on the shores of Indonesia, where the boats are leaving from?

Asylum seekers get on a boat because that’s how they imagine they can get into Australia. What if we let them get into Australia without getting on a boat?

Could we rent some space from the Indonesians, bring it inside the migration exclusion zone and process refugee claims up there?

Budget impact score: 9/10. No more detention centres, less need to police the seas for boat arrivals, etc.

Political acceptability score: 5/10. Should diminish boat arrivals so long as the applications are processed swiftly.

Direct morality score: 8/10. Assuming they are able to live in the community in Indonesia, there need be no imprisonment.

Indirect morality score: 9/10. No more drownings between Indonesia and Christmas Island.

2. Open slather.

Embrace boat arrivals. Stop turnbacks, Close off-shore detention; close on-shore detention; visas to live in the community while refugee applications processed.

This is about stopping boat arrivals from being a political problem. If you wanted to change the narrative on boat arrivals, you’d have to own the arrival of each boat. Get a video crew, translators and a government minister onto each boat as it arrives, so we can see them shaking hands with the asylum seekers, chatting and smiling. Interview the people, find out their stories and their names. Publish lists of asylum seekers, their smiling photos, and key quotes from them. Humanise not dehumanise. Let’s hear about their desire to live in Australia, their interest in what they’ve heard about us, their qualifications and jobs in their home countries, what they’re fleeing, what skills they bring, etc. This would absolutely freak everyone out for a while but the rate of repetition and the volume of boat arrival footage might eventually make boat arrivals very very boring.

(I think this approach could be helped along by some sort of non-government work to try to humanise asylum seekers. Greenpeace made us care about whales by having little inflatable boats out there and video cameras showing what was happening. Can we do the same with Asylum seekers? Could Sea Shepherd open up a northern Australia branch, for caring about humans? )

Budget impact score: 10/10. This is cheap.

Political acceptability score: 2/10 in the short-term as boat arrivals will go up up up.

Direct morality score: 10/10 (No more taxpayer-funded imprisoning of innocent people)

Indirect morality score: 5/10. (Some drownings still likely).

I’d be very interested to hear any other crazy ideas people have. Please share them below!

How one internet hater made me learn something important.

On Sunday, I found a whole lot of traffic coming to my site.

Screen Shot 2015-07-06 at 2.41.21 pmThis would normally be great news! The clicks were leading to a piece I wrote a few weeks ago about the ABC documentary The Killing Season. It was a scathing attack on how the media airbrushed itself out of the political intrigue. I knew it might lose me some friends in the media establishment, but I thought it was a story worth telling.

But when I traced back the link that was directing all the clicks, I found this:

Screen Shot 2015-07-06 at 2.45.06 pmThe piece had been fairly well received. Until yesterday.Screen Shot 2015-07-06 at 2.42.43 pm

The author of these epithets is not some lonely nut-job. His blog is otherwise quite good and he has a lot of readers.

But he had quite mistaken my take-down of the media.

I had a bit of trouble grasping what had gone wrong. How could what I wrote be seen as a defence of the media? It made no sense.

I drafted several extremely rude and contemptuous replies to his blogpost but then deleted them and spent more time pondering.

I believe I’ve unwound the problem. And in doing so came to a sort of epiphany.

The problem for this reader started when I tried to do a bit of structural analysis of why the media behaves as it does.

I wrote:

“The political journalist’s job is absurdly stressful and difficult. I doubt many people could imagine how precious time is for a working journalist. Deadlines don’t just loom. They crash down. There is scarcely time for typing, let alone time for reflection.

Pondering the role of the media in shaping political events is a job for retirement. Their job is to get stories out the door. Now.”

He interpreted this as me excusing the behaviour of the media, and that set him off.

Explaining is not excusing.

You can do analysis that says: Behaviour X is prevalent in a certain population because of these structural factors, and still condemn each instance of that behaviour.

For example, domestic violence in indigenous communities, killings in America’s inner cities, obesity in contemporary Australia, lying among politicians.

In each case, the people who bash their partners, kill their neighbour, eat so much they get fat, and tell untruths have done the wrong thing. They should change their behaviour.

But the heightened prevalence of these outcomes in these communities is not because they are a uniquely vile set of people.

There are structural explanations – things about their economy, society and unique incentives that make these transgressions more likely. Not inevitable for any individual, but likely in a population.

Pointing out structural explanations is risky: It has an extremely strong history of making people very upset.Screen Shot 2015-07-06 at 2.22.47 pm Screen Shot 2015-07-06 at 2.14.35 pm Screen Shot 2015-07-06 at 2.12.40 pm Screen Shot 2015-07-06 at 2.11.42 pmPeople think you’re letting bad people off the hook. I disagree.

I think explaining why problems exist is more useful than berating wrong-doers.

Berating can only get you so far when the incentives haven’t changed. Pointing out structural problems helps us improve our society.

To see why berating won’t work, let’s look at it statistically.

Let’s agree the government does a lot that is wrong. What are the odds that the entire parliament is composed of people with a sense of ethics that falls far below the national expectations? The odds seem low that all 150 MPs are selfish liars. In fact politics, with its lower pay and higher scrutiny, ought to attract more ethical people than some other careers. A structural explanation for their behaviour is likely more useful. Same for journalists.

The circumstances/context of a group of people are important to understand because:

1. We can potentially change the circumstances;

2. They have a big influence on people’s behaviour.

It turns out, despite what our fundamental myths like to tell us about the nature of character, that human behaviour is shaped far more by circumstance and priming than we like to admit. Personality and character have a role. But not always a defining role.

This is where I got excited.

Spending a lot of time around the internet, one often falls into debates where good behaviour goes out the window. I’m guilty of this. I see someone saying something factually wrong, and I type a mean response. I swear I’m trying to be nicer, but without always being successful.

So is the internet bringing out haters who always existed? I say no. It’s the circumstances that make haters.

Something about anonymity, the invisibility of intentions, and the ability to dredge up someone’s history to make a neat little narrative of their motivations can turn good people quite nasty. They can turn especially nasty if they think you’re providing excuses to their sworn enemy.

Acknowledging the internet incubates nastiness is an important first step. It allows people who want to male the internet more civil to introduce changes, like using our real world identities more, doing reporting and moderation of comments, and hopefully many others that haven’t been invented yet.

So I don’t hate the guy who misunderstood my blog and called me all those names.

I bet if he and I sat down face-to-face we’d get along just fine.

Speech – Prime Minister Wyatt Roy. January 26 2038.

Screen Shot 2015-07-02 at 11.07.33 amSpeech – Prime Minister Wyatt Roy.

January 26 2038.

[check against delivery]

My fellow Australians.

On this 250th anniversary of the arrival of the First Fleet on this continent, I want to make a few comments about our society and economy.

Arrival Day, as we’ve known it for several decades now, has become a day to look back on things we’ve done wrong. Dedicating a day to critical self-reflection is one of our nation’s finest achievements. We can’t undo our mistakes. But we can learn from them and use that to set the future on the right path.

That’s why it’s very important we think about house prices. How did we get to this point? When I travel across this country, I see three disappointed generations – one owning homes that have slumped in value; one owing giant debts on low-value homes, and one perhaps able to buy a home, if they were not wounded by the economic shrapnel that came from the explosion.

We were like butterflies. We thought our brief glimpse of the world told us everything we needed to know. House price crashes had never happened in our lifetimes, so while rates were low, we treated the banks like an all-you-can-eat salad bar.

Interest rates were low for so long that we began to think they’d never go back up either.

When the RBA raised rate in 2025, after so many years of inactivity, perhaps the house price upswing might have stopped. That was our chance.

But fate intervened.

We now know that China’s overstretched financial system was, at that exact moment, about to burst. The failure kept interest rates low, even as Chinese funds flowed out of China and found their way to Australia.

RBA Governor Stevens repeated his now infamous signature move and cut rates. The price of housing in Australia continued to rise. Median prices in all major capitals topped $1 million. Sydney’s average price rose over $2 million.

A first home loan of six figures was de rigeur. And why not? With rates at 1 per cent, young people around Australia could afford that sort of debt to obtain their own home.

Their parents, in most cases, had done likewise. Who would talk them out of it? I saw my own children – Morgan and Orbison – make the exact choices I had, and although I felt a tremor of unease, I didn’t want to dictate their lives to them. Personal freedom is one of the strands of philosophy that enlivens the Libor Party I lead, and I try to live it out in my own life too.

At home I bit my tongue. To my shame, I did the same from the opposition benches in Parliament.

Treasurer Bandt seemed to have a firm grip on the economy. House price appreciation was as Australian as a Golden Gaytime on a 45-degree day. Who was I to argue with a trend that had run my entire life?

Environment Minister Irwin read me a quote the other day that I knew I must use in this speech.

That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons of history,” she said. That’s from a science fiction writer from last century. He saw something of the future, Bindi told me, but only by paying careful attention to the past.

That’s our job, from hereon. To make sure we pay attention to the full sweep of history. We must not only be obsessed with what’s right under our noses. The more things change, the more they stay the same. The lessons of 5 years ago may glow more brightly than the lessons of 105 years ago, but they are not always more pertinent.

We should make sure our memory of the excesses of the mid 20th century inform our debates on government over-reach. Make sure our memories of the 18th and 19th centuries inform our debates on unchecked poverty. Make sure our memories of the rise and fall of civilisations long past informs our thinking about our permanence.

On this day, above all others, I commend the study of history to all of us.

So, should you spend a bit more to get a fancier car?

This story originally appeared over at The New Daily. (They’ve asked me to write a consumer-focused story each week, which I will also post here)

I recently looked up the cheapest new car and the most expensive new car being advertised in Australia. I was gobsmacked at both ends of the spectrum.

At the very bottom end was a Mitsubishi Mirage, 2014 model, with only 15km on the clock. It cost $9,880 before on-road charges.

Screen Shot 2015-06-28 at 2.52.40 pm

The most expensive was a new Rolls Royce Phantom. The only one of its kind in Australia. Price $994,000, drive away, no more to pay.

Screen Shot 2015-06-27 at 11.29.16 am

That’s 100 times more expensive! Obviously you get big differences depending on which car you choose.

Only one of these cars has a 5-star ANCAP rating – the highest local standard for safety, and a 5-year warranty.

As you probably guessed, I’m talking about the Mirage. Yep. You can pay a million bucks for a car that has no official Aussie safety rating and a shorter (four-year) warranty.

The Mirage’s little motor also boasts far better fuel efficiency, at 4.6L/100km. That compares to 14.8L/100 km for the 12-cylinder engine beneath with the winged lady.

So the cheapest car is winning on some pretty important features. This made me wonder. What is the real difference between a cheap and expensive car?

Once upon a time it was reliability. Mercedes of old ran for hundreds of thousands of kilometres. Not so much any more.

The great industrialisation of Japan, from the middle of last century changed the game. The brilliant standardisation of quality pioneered by companies like Toyota made quality a starting point.

These days the car that endures that is likely to be a Honda or Subaru.

So luxury cars distinguished themselves with features. Leather seats. Sunroofs and electric windows. (Remember how exciting the smooth glide of an electric windows was when they first came in?) Cruise control and heated seats.

But it turned out that when you’re making millions of Camrys, it is possible to cheaply fit them all with an impressive swag of desirable features. So the game shifted again.

Now the luxury car distinguishes itself on some rather weird parameters.

The reviewers dwell on things like the noise the engine makes in a Porsche, or “a rather striking cherry wood inlay in the luggage area” in a new Mercedes.

Do these things matter to anyone who isn’t looking for a reason to buy an expensive car anyway? They remind me of the blueberry notes the labels are always so eloquent about in fancy bottles of wine. Important for an extremely refined few.

Most of us operate at a rather more prosaic level.

Let’s look at two vehicles in the fastest growing category around – “crossover” SUVS. Screen Shot 2015-07-01 at 1.37.05 pmScreen Shot 2015-07-01 at 1.37.34 pmA Ford Kuga costing around $26,000 and a Mercedes GLA costing around $55,000.

Here’s a comparison on some important features.

Screen Shot 2015-07-01 at 1.43.07 pm

Okay, I’m being facetious.

There are actual differences. For example, the Mercedes gives you 4.6L/100km, the Kuga 6.3L/100km. And there’s more:

Screen Shot 2015-07-01 at 1.43.14 pmThere are lots of other little differences too, in things that are probably good to have. But adding them up, are they worth an extra $30,000+?

The difference in comfort between a $25,000 car and $55,000 car is more slight than the difference between economy and business class on an aeroplane. If you sit in that car for an hour a day for ten years – 3650 hours – a $30,000 price difference means you’re paying a premium of $8 an hour.

Whether that $8 hourly rate looks like a worthwhile investment or a worthwhile saving depends on the person, and their income.

Interestingly, it seems income is a big factor.

Official statistics show the rich spend far more on cars than the poor. Households at the top of the income distribution spend eight times more on cars than the bottom of the distribution.

Maybe they can afford it. Maybe they value the small luxuries of life. But there’s another explanation possible too.

It is called signalling. On the African savannah, the male lion grows a mane which may actually harm its survival. Doing so and still managing to thrive shows it is super fit and healthy – and worth mating with.

Some experts think conspicuous consumption is similar in humans. Throwing money around announces to the world that you are special.

The larger and more frivolous the expenditure, the more effective the announcement. It makes sense – the person who buys that one-of-only-25-in-the-world Rolls Royce is far more likely to be someone trying to demonstrate something about themselves than a person with an extreme passion for fine wood inlays.

So when we see someone insisting they need electric lumbar support and alloy wheels, and the Mercedes is simply the best way to get that, we are probably justified to wonder whether they are falling into the trap of simply showing off.

Obviously, there’s a minimum price point –perhaps somewhere below $10,000 – where spending less on a car is a risk too big to take. And there’s a point – probably somewhere above $100,000 – where spending more is entirely silly. But where’s the tipping point? What’s too much to spend on a car? What’s too little? Please share your views below!