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What the Commonwealth Games can teach us about international refugee law

Yesterday Peter Dutton, friend of the blog, decided that the time was ripe to film a message for athletes arriving on the Gold Coast for the upcoming Commonwealth Games. Because Peter Dutton is a cartoon villain, the message was: "Australia has tough border protection laws". (You'll be shocked to hear that he says this a lot.) But apart from revealing his thirst for xenophobic politics, Dutton's video reveals something underappreciated about the way the global refugee regime works.

Turns out the deal on the Irish border... resolved nothing

I have had this tab open, meaning to write a post about Theresa May and the Tory Brexit ultras, since the second week of December when the government and the European Commission signed off a 'stage one' agreement on preliminary issues, notably including the Irish border. You will just have to believe me that my planned post would have contained some predictions that are now coming true: the PM seemed to get away with that December agreement because the most ardent Leavers in her party didn't understand it, a stroke of luck that was never going to be very durable.
There was plenty of sound and fury about how much money the UK will pay to the EU during and after the transition, and some performative nonsense about citizens' rights, but the real nub of the preliminary negotiations was the Irish issue. That's because avoiding massive disruption to people in the north and south of Ireland requires seamless trade, of the sort that the UK currently has with the EU but mo…

Dutton after Manus: the anti-migrant rubber hits the road

In 2016, I wrote this piece about how Australian politicians have managed to mostly deflect the population's more or less standard anti-immigration sentiments into an unusually poisonous debate about refugees rather than one about the broader migration programme. Some of the conclusions I gestured at were, in retrospect, pointlessly speculative. But the dynamic is an interesting one.
It's not actually so unique: the same political idea is one reason Republicans in the US - before Trump - responded to their base's nativism with moves against irregular immigrants rather than doing anything to shrink the large legal intake. Tony Blair, too, talked tough about asylum seekers while overseeing a dramatic increase in immigration to the UK. The gambit was only ever partially successful in those countries. By 2010 the British government was dedicating itself to slashing immigration by more than half; when they failed - well, we know what happened in 2016, in the UK as well as Amer…

Stop trying to make home-ownership happen

The housing affordability measures in Philip Hammond's budget yesterday were no good. That's the consensus of the Office for Budgetary Responsibility, which publishes a report alongside the budget, and of most housing commentators. He could have done better - but maybe not much better without giving up on the core of Britain's current approach to housing.

What's the point of tuition fees?

There's no news hook for this, but I'm starting an internship next week that's not going to be compatible with publishing opinions about education policy. So here is a short rundown on why the UK tuition fees system is so contorted that it doesn't really deliver on any of the theoretical merits of student fees.
First things first: all the funding for university education comes, in the first instance, from the government. The debate is only about what revenue-raising method the government should use to recoup that money. One option is general taxation, which broadly charges everyone but takes more from the better-off. Another option is a graduate tax which specifically targets people who attended university. A third is some kind of fee/loan system, in which students are specifically responsible for a set part of the cost and repay the government that amount over time.
Why do the third one? There are a few reasons, which often get run together.

Europe's road to Manus Island

Here - below the fold - is a piece I wrote about what Manus Island should teach people in Europe. It's shockingly easy to imagine how EU policy-makers, despite their protestations to the contrary, could end up overseeing an asylum regime even more callous than Australia's. They are already on the path, and it's hard to get off.
The piece is slightly dated, because I wrote it a week and a half ago and have been trying to shop it to editors who are variously budgetless or too busy to answer emails. Sad! And now it's too late - because this is not topical any more, even though more than 400 people are still living in a detention facility whose conditions are being made deliberately intolerable - so I haven't updated it, because it'd be effort that nobody's paying me for, but instead I'll add one extra thought.
I'm reading Sasha Polakow-Suransky's new book, Go Back to Where You Came From, which gives a rare insight (for people not on the far right)…

The pull-factor pathology

I'll hopefully have something published later this week about the Manus Island catastrophe and the lessons it should teach the EU, so here is something briefer about the total senselessness of the suffering Australia is now inflicting.

If we let ourselves assume away the xenophobia that drives most of the political argument, there's one strand of argument used to justify the offshore processing regime that has some truth to it. When a more welcoming policy towards boat arrivals is in place, more people are inclined to get on boats from Indonesia and Sri Lanka to Australia, and that can mean that more people die at sea. This is the pull-factor logic that underlies moves to make the boat journey into a risk with no payoff: by implementing mandatory detention, offshore processing, Temporary Protection Visas, boat turnbacks, and the 2013 ban on boat arrivals ever being resettled in Australia.

These measures are defended as making the lives of refugees who do come worse in order to…

Assault is not a 'sexual indiscretion'

I used to do a lot of university debating, and what that means in practice is that you spend a lot of time sitting on buses going to and from a university on the far fringe of an exotic-sounding city. One way to pass the time on these bus journeys is to play categories: somebody picks a category, and you go round the circle naming things, knocking people out when they can't think of one.
On one particularly long bus journey in Chennai, about four years ago, we found ourselves playing the category 'famous sex scandals', and someone said Jimmy Savile. After the initial moment of pure shock, we agreed that he was out of the game. Not because of some backup, how-could-you rule, but because rape is not a sex scandal and there is no category that encompasses consensual behaviour that people are a bit shocked by and also sexual violence.
This, apparently, is not how things are understood at Westminster. The sudden fall of Harvey Weinstein is reverberating, and there's a lot …

Don't protect your source if your source is flagrantly abusing you and the law

One of Employment Minister Michaelia Cash's staffers resigned earlier this week, after it was revealed by Buzzfeed's Alice Workman that he'd told several media outlets about an imminent police raid on the Australian Workers Union. Cash is also in trouble because she told the Senate repeatedly that nobody in her office had passed this information to any media. Sounds like good reporting, right? Not so fast!
There is a fight happening in the Canberra press gallery, about whether journalists at these (unnamed) other outlets should have told Buzzfeed that their source was in the ministers' office, and whether Workman should have published the story revealing that fact. Sharri Markson of the Daily Telegraph, Robert Ovadia at Channel 7, and Laura Tingle of the (paywalled) Australian Financial Review all think that exposing this source was violating a basic rule of journalistic ethics.
This is a neat illustration of how professional codes of ethics can become a damaging subs…

Senate Estimates: what to watch for

Yesterday was... a big day in Australian politics. One government staffer has resigned and the opposition are clearly after a few more scalps, including that of Employment Minister Michaelia Cash. Most of this went down in the Senate Education & Employment Committee's budget estimates hearing (a mouthful) today.
That hearing was meant to finish yesterday, but has now been extended for a special two hour session this morning in light of, well, everything. Often in these dramas it's hard to keep track of what's happening, what issues are live, what's been dealt with, and what was just confusion in the midst of the action. So here's a short summary of where things stand and what to watch for in the continuation hearing this morning. (You can watch it here between 9.00 and 11.00am.)

Government debt is not consumer debt... not even for housing

Yesterday, Communities Secretary Sajid Javid declared that the government should borrow more to invest in building new homes. That's a good move, because the plummeting amount of social and affordable housing is causing an acute crisis for local councils and their working-class residents. Spending money to resolve major social problems is what the government is for, and that includes borrowing for it.
Rather than take that line, though, Tories are opting to pretend that what they're doing doesn't really count as borrowing: Key difference between borrowing to build houses and borrowing to fund deficit: housebuilding creates new assets which can act as security https://t.co/sgXXYeq2F1 — Nick Boles MP (@NickBoles) October 23, 2017 If you borrow to purchase an asset, then your balance sheet position doesn't change, because you've got a new offset that (almost) exactly offsets your new liability. This is the kind of thinking that underlies Labour's fiscal rule unde…

What the accidental Radicals reveal about 'centrism'

Last week Jeremy Cliffe, the Economist's Berlin bureau chief, 'accidentally' created a Google account with a name that could only be the name of a political party and asked people to express their interest in joining. Then, he'd have us believe, he was shocked that people did this. The word 'accidentally', as far as I can tell, basically functions as a cover for the fact that Cliffe never had any intention of bothering with any of the activities that you'd normally expect a political party to engage in, like raising money, recruiting candidates, or really trying to change anything. (They have a website, and a Twitter, which have both gone completely silent.)
The noble exception is that they have a manifesto.
Entirely possible to transform UK for the better while staying in Single Market (and perhaps even the EU). Here's the radical manifesto: pic.twitter.com/TrS0pZbwtK — Jeremy Cliffe (@JeremyCliffe) October 17, 2017 Going line-by-line through this wo…

Can you really oppose secession but support the right to secede?

When Spain's constitutional court imposed limits on the extent of Catalonia's autonomy in 2010, and people in Catalonia started to get angry, the sensible response for the Spanish government was not to cover their ears and insist that nothing could change. When political parties in Catalonia tried to find a legal means to register their growing dissatisfaction, the correct thing to do was not declare it all illegal and hope that it'd go away. And when they held a referendum anyway, the Spanish government's moral options did not include large-scale violence against peaceful voters and demonstrators.
So far, so obvious. The natural progression when someone says sentences like these, as Owen Jones does in the Guardian, is to a declaration that even if we don't support independence, we should support the right of Catalans to decide. Jones calls national self-determination a "basic democratic principle", and he's far from alone. But he's wrong. Nation…

Don't call Stephen Paddock a terrorist

Sometimes we are told by the media's great and good to calm down about terrorism. There are so few attacks that it's not rational to be scared - the real threat is our furniture. Sometimes, though, it seems they think we're not nearly alarmed enough. They think that if we counted properly we'd recognise over five hundred more terrorist attacks in the United States since last June.
Of course this isn't what they say. What they say is that gunning down dozens of people at a music festival is terrorism, and we should call it by its name. When police declined to describe Stephen Paddock's murder of 58 people from a hotel balcony as an act of terrorism, there was outrage. The point is that large parts of the media and law enforcement establishments reserve the term 'terrorism' for attacks committed by people who are Muslim. They're not wrong to point this out. The public discourse around terrorism is defined almost completely by its Islamophobic presump…

Rents, rates & house prices

Here are two fairly provocative but extremely interesting articles about housing, from Dan Davies and Andrew Lilico. (Before he developed his Brexit-Corbyn monomania.) Taken together they argue that the overall state of the UK housing market can't usefully be described as a crisis.

How could someone think this? Well, as some of the charts in my post from last week indicate, rents have actually not been growing very quickly in the UK - increases in rent have been less than the CPI, which means that rent has actually become cheaper relative to other goods over the last decade. If demand for housing was increasing (through population growth) much faster than supply, scarcity would be pushing rents up much more quickly. It hasn't.

Labour & housing: a bunch of charts about rents and construction

Rent controls, if they have any teeth to them, make it less profitable to let out houses, which means fewer houses in the private rental sector and less construction of new homes for rent. So the theory goes, and we're all being reminded after Jeremy Corbyn's speech to Labour conference that everybody agrees with this theory. (Everybody, in this case, means "Paul Krugman almost twenty years ago".)


The official rent statistics only go back to 2005, which means I can't show you a longer-run chart or one covering the period when the UK had rent control. But you can see that there's no simple connection between rents (or rent increases, which is what's on this chart) and the rate of construction.

Quick thoughts on May-Gillard-Johnson-Rudd

I tweeted a couple of days ago about Boris Johnson's apparent leadership manoeuvring, and how it fits nicely with the last paragraph of my New Statesman piece about minority government in Australia:
Even Gillard eventually succumbed – with an election looming – to the very same Kevin Rudd whom a bevy of ministers had savaged just a few months earlier. That’s bad news for May – and good news for any blond-haired challengers who fancy themselves as popular with the public, and have been eyeing the prime ministership for years. Not that the Tories have any of those. I thought it'd be interesting, or mildly entertaining, to go into a bit more detail about how the Rudd-Gillard leadership saga played out, for comparison to what might happen and what's already happening in the May-Johnson battle.

Tim Farron and the transformation of liberalism

Sixty years ago, Britain had a debate about homosexuality that Tim Farron must be pining for. After a string of high-profile trials, an inquiry led by Lord John Wolfenden took up the question of whether gay sex should be criminalised. The report’s conclusion – that it shouldn’t – was taken up by two prominent legal figures, academic H.L.A. Hart and Law Lord Patrick Devlin.
The famous Hart-Devlin debate makes for very strange reading in 2017. The question at its heart was whether the law should enforce moral standards against behaviour that didn’t affect anyone except the people involved. It was a dry argument, drawing heavily on old theories of liberalism, about whether the law had any business trying to impose private morality.

Heading to no: Labour and the single market, redux

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about Chuka Umunna's pro-single market amendment to the Queen's Speech, the conclusion of which was that Chuka hadn't given even a moment's thought to what a strategy for stopping or softening Brexit would look like. But my frustration at Labour moderates being unstrategic is starting to give way to pessimism about the chances of stopping a version of departure from the EU which - it's as true today as it was during the referendum campaign - would be terrible for everything progressives care about. Labour's infighting dynamics are heading in a very bad direction.
First things first. Hard Brexit - which, no, it doesn't really mean anything, but I'm just going to use it as shorthand for leaving the single market - would quite likely trigger an immediate recession. That would strain welfare spending, and increase the deficit and debt in a way that makes a return of austerity politics much more likely. It would almost certainl…

Going nowhere

Demos and Policy Exchange are the thinktanks responsible for the two most consequential party changes in British party politics in the last thirty-five years. By shaping New Labour and David Cameron's Tory modernisation, they've mattered to the course of everyday, cut-and-thrust politics in a way that most research institutions could only dream about. So you'd think that someone who'd held senior positions at both would know a thing or two about how things work.
On the other hand, David Goodhart didn't join Demos until 2012, when Ed Miliband had already turned the page on New Labour. And he headed to Policy Exchange in early 2016, just in time to watch David Cameron crash the compassionate conservative car and Theresa May torch the wreckage. Perhaps that makes it slightly less mysterious that Goodhart is, when it comes to the current state of British politics, wrong about almost everything.