Sunday, September 18, 2011

A failure of logic

Daily we hear Gillard and Bowen bleating that they don't want to be responsible for another dreadful accident like the sinking of the asylum seeker vessel at Christmas Island on December 15 2010. They therefore go on to say that it is necessary to process asylum seekers off-shore, in order to "break the people smugglers' business model" and thus to prevent a further tragedy of that sort.
By so doing they create a much greater tragedy - they leave asylum seekers without any of the protections that they have a right to expect under the Refugee Convention and other international obligations that Australia has signed up to.
So long as there is unrest in the world, there will be asylum seekers. So long as there are asylum seekers there will be people offering to transport them to places where they might reasonably expect to be safe. So what's the failure of logic? Simply this: Both the opposition and the government seem to think that it's OK to treat asylum seekers in contravention of our international obligations; in an inhumane way; to imprison them; to turn them back in leaky boats...simply so they won't have a chance to end up, graphically on our nightly television news. Gillard and Abbott don't want that sort of footage - it suggests that they might not be being humane or sensible in their policies. So perhaps it's not a failure of logic. Perhaps if you are Gillard and Abbott it makes perfect sense: if boats sink at Christmas Island, and asylum seekers drown then current policies come into question. If boats sink after they've been turned back to somewhere in Asia, or they disappear without trace (yes one of those was reported this week) then that's much less likely to cause concern in Australia. So, let's just let them rot in Manus, Nauru, or better yet send them to Malaysia. That's logical!
Sorry it must be me that's having the failure of logic. When put like that, Abbott and Gillard make perfect political sense. It's a great, great pity that it makes no sense at all to me as a human being.
How about we adopt  a sensible and humane approach here? If asylum seekers are driven to board leaky boats then that is not ideal, however it will be a reality, whatever we do. So why don't we just treat them decently when they get here? It's their (undoubtedly forced by circumstances) choice to jump on those boats and the reality is we can do little to stop it. What we can stop immediately is the inhumane mandatory detention whilst asylum seekers are processed. We can stop immediately Gillard and Bowen's proposed watering away of our international obligations. We can stop immediately any plans to process off-shore or to send asylum seekers to third countries for processing.
I wonder why we wouldn't do what we can, rather than bleating about what we can't change?
Footnote: It was edifying to see Bowen berated by protesters yesterday. His riposte? Not a very mature way to carry on a debate. Well Chris I couldn't agree more, the approach you have taken to asylum seekers is neither mature nor effective. Your engagement of the Australian and international community is neither mature nor effective. You reap what you sow Chris. If you take a more humane and mature approach you'd be surprised what comes back to you.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Jabber, XMPP and why not let SMS die?

The history of internet messaging, as opposed to email, is somewhat vexed and perhaps nerdy. I suspect that's why Jabber has not yet caught on like it should. That's not to stop you getting on, what is now, a fast-growing bandwagon.
First what's Jabber? Jabber is an internet standard which was developed in the 1990s and is now called XMPP - eXtensible Messaging and Presence Protocol. You can find details at
You might be familiar with it under other names. On the Mac iChat uses XMPP and the iChat server on Mac is an XMPP server. GTalk in Google also runs on XMPP, as does Facebook chat.
But let's backtrack a little. Firstly what's so good about Jabber? Well Jabber is just like email. There is no "central" server. Instead a whole raft of servers across the internet provide Jabber services and they in turn contact other servers and "federate" that is one server talks to another. This is just the same as email. It's helped by the form of Jabber addresses: is recognisable as a fully routable email address. It's also a complete Jabber address. You can message me for instance at criticalalpha at gmail dot com . So we remove all the complexity about needing to know what server somebody is on and, through the magic of something called transports, what legacy messaging system they might be on.
Next is a really nice feature: presence. If you are in my roster (the XMPP name for my buddy list) then Jabber tells me when you are online and when you aren't. It makes it simple to determine whether you are available for a chat or not.
The most basic service on a Jabber server is text chat. Depending on the server and the client you use however you can also use voice chat, video, screen sharing, multi-user whiteboard, file transfer, Multi-User Chat (MUC) and lots more. Jabber also provides store and forward treatment of text messages when the other party is offline. When they come online the message is delivered.
What's all this got to do with SMS? Well we seem to be addicted to SMS. But every time I send an SMS I'm chewing up either a fee per message - $0.25 or so, or an allowance of text messages. In addition I have no presence information for the other user and no information usually about whether the message has been delivered. With Jabber on the other hand, I know whether the user is online. I get error reporting if the message is not delivered and it costs me peanuts - the cost of a few bytes of my data allowance. In addition I can be logged into my Jabber account from a variety of places at the same time - my computer, my phone, the means that in effect I'm ubiquitously available if I wish to be. XMPP is also completely cross-platform, it's not proprietary so you can send messages from one platform and receive on another...just like email. Since using XMPP my SMS usage has fallen very sharply, it's now perhaps 15% of what it used to be. Using iChat voice calls are clearer and more reliable that Skype...
So what do you need to get started on XMPP/Jabber?

  1. A Jabber account. If you have your own Jabber server that's easy. If not a GMail account will also give you a GTalk account at the same address. Alternatively there are lots of free servers around, try here for a start: .
  2. A client on your laptop or home computer. If you are a Mac user that's easy, iChat comes with the Mac and supports MUC, screen sharing, file transfer, video and voice as well as text chat. If you are on Windows try googling Adium, Spark or Psi+ for starters. Here's a list of over 90 clients: (both computer and mobile).
  3. A client for your smartphone. Beejive is a multi platform client. It's not cheap but it supports push and staying live for up to 7 days on the iPhone as well as connection to GTalk, Facebook, Yahoo messaging, MSN, AIM and MySpace. You could also try imo, OneTeam or Jabba on the iPhone. Some of those are also cross platform, working on Android, Blackberry etc.
  4. Some buddies...
It pains me to see telcos earning massive profits on their SMS traffic when the cost is fractions of a cent per message. Take advantage of the enhanced capability of XMPP/Jabber and the lower cost and get on board today.

The mire we find ourselves in

It's been a tumultuous couple of weeks, and at the end I'm left with a peculiar quandary. There is no longer any party in Australian politics that comes close to representing my views. I saw on a young bloke's FaceBook page, under the heading "Politics" a simple statement: "Politicians are wankers". Based on the behaviour in Canberra and Spring Street, not to mention Macquarie Street, I can only agree.
For months now it's been hard to determine which is the right wing of the Liberal Party and which is our Labor Prime Minister. This situation is most apparent in the case of policy for asylum seekers. Gillard has lurched ever further from a social justice position to a position of pointless rhetoric about some "business model" which she ascribes to "people smugglers". On the way, asylum seekers are used as chess pieces in some game that, apparently, is designed to "break the people smugglers' business model".
Abbott and Gillard have painted themselves into corners which are so close that they are able to put their arms around each other if they wish. And lo, as the High Court decision on Malaysia was released, we saw Abbott and Gillard attempt to do just that.
The bit that both have missed is that, on the subject of asylum seekers, the public have moved on. A majority of Australians in recent polls have supported on-shore processing of asylum seekers. Yet both Gillard and Abbott continue to rant and rave about the necessity for "offshore" processing.
So let's get down to the facts:

  1. In response to a challenge about Gillard's proposal to send asylum seekers to Malaysia, the High Court ruled that Chris Bowen, as Minister, had acted beyond his powers in declaring Malaysia and could not send asylum seekers there;
  2. The key issue was that the immigration act, the Court held, had various protections in it. The Court held that these protections arose in the act out of an intention to enact Australia's obligations under the Refugee Convention and other related instruments. The Court was not prepared to accept that these protections were available in Malaysia and therefore the Minister acted beyond his powers in determining that they were;
  3. The High Court further made it clear that other countries might represent the same problems for Australia as Malaysia had, due to the same provisions;
  4. Gillard, after some prevarication, looks likely to partner with Abbott to seek to change the law to enable her to continue off-shore processing of asylum seekers;
  5. On the way to doing that Gillard arranged a Departmental briefing for Abbott. That briefing, we are told by the press, sank to the depths of xenophobia and scaremongering.
Here's the problem for me in changing the law: My reading of the High Court judgement leads me to think that there are perhaps two things that Gillard could do to make it possible to send asylum seekers off-shore for processing. Either she could substantially water down Australia's obligations to treat asylum seekers in accordance with our various international obligations (such as the Refugee Convention); or she could somehow put the decision making process beyond the reach of judicial review. You'd need to be a decent lawyer to determine whether the latter path is possible.
Leaving aside what I think should happen to asylum seekers (more of that in a moment), either of those courses of action are a total anathema to me. How could we water down our obligations to treat asylum seekers with a basic set of protections? When is it ever acceptable to place politicians' decisions beyond review of the courts? There may be other mechanisms open to Gillard in changing the act but you'd have to be smarter than me to see them.
What is most disappointing to a natural left voter is that Gillard has not only wilfully failed to take this opportunity to extricate herself from a dreadful political bind over asylum seekers, but she has lurched further into the bind. She wants to be there, she wants to be cheek by jowl with the worst of the Liberal Party and she wants to treat asylum seekers in a totally unacceptable and inhumane way.
Let's be clear about this. At the heart of the High Court's decision was a view that the Minister could not find that Malaysia had appropriate protections for the basic rights of asylum seekers under the appropriate international instruments. This isn't sophistry, or lawyers playing with words. It's about basic protection of asylum seekers' rights. Gillard meanwhile has clearly shown that she doesn't give a fig for those rights, not a fig.
Gillard was offered a "get out of jail" card by the High Court. She could have dumped her old rhetoric "the Court won't let us do what we think is right, so now we have to process on-shore" or whatever face-saving spin she wanted to put on it. She could have freed herself from her lock-step with the Libs and in the process begun to live up to our obligations. She has proved either too stupid to see the opportunity or too set in her firm belief about the rightness of her path. Either way, this week has seen an extraordinary phenomenon in my small circle. Life-long left voters vowing that the Labor Party will never again get their vote.
I've previously written about what I think about the political rhetoric around asylum seekers and people smugglers. Please go and read it. Suffice to say that the "pull" theory expounded by our politicians of all colours is simply bollocks. The people smugglers will only go away when peace descends on countries of origin and people no longer feel their only option is to flee.
Australia's politicians are demonstrating that we are a mean, selfish and uncaring country. We are not prepared to live up to our humanitarian obligations. The one ray of hope is that it appears that the Australian population are beginning to abandon their politicians, beginning to look like they support the right thing - on-shore processing, indeed in my view community processing.
Now to my dilemma. finding yourself politically homeless never happens overnight. Rather a slow build up reaches breaking point. This is the breaking point for me and many others I know. We are left in a disturbing situation of there being no natural party of the left. On Twitter, @sunili made the point that if we wanted a Liberal PM we wouldn't vote for Gillard so she should stop acting like a Liberal (my paraphrase). That's exactly right. The problem is that we want a real party of the left. A party that is about social justice, real protection for workers, a society that is both productive and supportive of those who can't produce, a society that cares for its planet, a society where the wealth of the country, particularly the mineral wealth, is used wisely and for the common good. We have NO party in this country that now fulfils that place in anything but rhetoric.
I am, as yet, entirely unconvinced that the Greens can live up to that broader agenda.
My great hope for the coming weeks is that the left of the Labor Party, the Independents, the Greens and those few real liberals left in the Liberal Party might band together to stop the passing of any changes that would again open the way to off-shore processing.
That may do something for asylum seekers, I hope so. It won't do anything for Australian voters like me, left in the cold on the left.