When should an MP claim expenses?

MPs are currently battling public perceptions of their use of parliamentary entitlements. On the radio this morning, the Trade Minister effectively told listeners that it was the core business of MPs – and ministers in particular – to use the entitlements system to attend corporate boxes at high profile sporting events where public companies showcase themselves.

Parliamentarians talk of reform to the system, but sadly, the lack of action reveals the pervasiveness of entitlement gratification.

To assist MPs in understanding whether an event warrants a call on the public purse, I have designed this modest flow chart.

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Centrelink, leaners, and the cyber

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The Australian government’s harassment of tax payers through its Centrelink data matching system is now well-documented. (See eg my own posts, here, here and here.) Yet today the Minister, Alan Tudge, again came out in defence of the system saying that ‘it is working and we will continue with that system’.

Accepting widespread criticism of the Centrelink robo-debt program, the question is whether it is a clever application of technologies to prosecute an ideological agenda, or further evidence that government does not cyber very well.

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Centrelink: A failure of government

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Centrelink is the latest government IT-dependent scheme to miss the target

Over the last couple of months, #Centrelinkfail has gained momentum as a news story. We knew from reports in 2016 that the Department of Human Services was introducing a data matching system that would check social security payments against tax records. But over Christmas, what began as a trickle of reports of incorrect allegations of debt, debt collectors, and tales of personal crisis turned into a flood.

Meanwhile, the government continues to defend the system, ‘confident’ in its operation.

Today, the former head of the government’s Digital Transformation Office, Paul Shetler, has commented on the government’s succession of IT failures – including #censusfail and Centrelink – describing them as

“cataclysmic” and “not a crisis of IT” but a “crisis of government”.

The Centrelink debacle – in particular when viewed together with the government’s other ill-conceived attempts at implementing digital services – demands an urgent and radical rethink about the nature of process of the exercise of state power in the face of pervasive digital technologies.

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Blockchain: is it the next big thing

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Old school ledger

I will start by answering the question in the title: I don’t know.

This post is directed principally at lawyers and legal academics, arguing that whatever the trajectory of Blockchain technology, it is sufficiently significant that we must attempt to understand it at some level at least to think critically about its potential implications.

Some lawyers, principally in Big Law firms with a large banking and finance client base, are deeply engaged in Blockchain including to suggest that it will open new fields of practice. Other lawyers understand but dismiss its potential. In my experience however, the majority is unaware of its existence or cannot really say what it is. This latter position is fair enough, because in my view it’s not easy to find a simple explanation that lacks breathless proclamations of a new world order.

I’m a newcomer, having bitten the bullet after I observed ‘chatter’ about Blockchain had reached a tipping point. In my social media feeds, in recent months it has moved from random mentions (innovators) to dedicated early-adopter status even reaching mainstream media… This must surely mean that it’s time for lawyers to become conversant in the technology and its possibilities (and limitations). This post is a low-tech overview of some of the issues, from a lawyer’s perspective.

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Two former PMs and failure of ‘cultural competency’

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Swans are necessarily white only if you display a lack of critical thinking

I have just spent a stimulating and inspiring two days at ANU College of Law in a consultation workshop as part of an important research project into Indigenous cultural competency for legal academics led by Marcelle Burns of UNE. The project is funded by the (now sadly defunct) Commonwealth Office of Learning and Teaching. This is a project of substance, and of national importance. The standing of the project leaders and those who participated in the workshop is testament to this.

 

I emerged from this overall positive discourse to news that former Prime Minister John Howard found ‘appalling’  the idea of a treaty with Indigenous Australians, and that former Prime Minister Tony Abbott dismissed a treaty out of hand. In the first place, Mr Abbott said, a treaty is entered into between two nations – I suppose he means that as a definitional question this is a logical impossibility, for Indigenous Australians hold no seat at the UN (incidentally an institution of which Mr Abbott does not approve). In the second place, Mr Abbott said that going down the path of treaty would spoil the chance for constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.

These two comments offer a case study in the very issues that occupied our thinking in the workshop. How could it be that two men could rise to be Prime Minister of Australia, senior lawmakers, with such an abject lack of the knowledge, skills, and attitudes that sound in inter-cultural competence – a necessity for all professionals but in particular for lawyers.

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The global lawyer

The legal profession has been concerned for some time with the capability of law graduates for transnational practice. While much of the discussion in the context of the Australian legal profession has centered on knowledge, for example of private international law, there is inevitably an array of skills and attitudes that must accompany such knowledge to develop what might be called the global lawyer. This post teases out what those skills and attitudes might look like.

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Say no to sexist language in public discourse

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In the week that brought to light television personality Eddie McGuire’s ‘banter’ about sports journalist Caroline Wilson, the voters of Leichhardt, have been treated to campaign signs depicting a witch. The signs have been placed adjacent to campaign signs of the only woman candidate in Leichhardt, ALP candidate Sharryn Howes.

The signs themselves entreat the voter to ‘put Labor last’ because winding back negative gearing is a ‘wicked thing to do’.

The incumbent MP Warren Entsch, who authorised the signs, has ‘angrily denied’ any comparison between his signs and the notorious ‘Ditch the Witch’ signs used in rallies in 2011, attended by former Prime Minister Abbott.  According to reports, Mr Entsch has said

“It has nothing to do with anything else. We think its a wicked and awful thing to do for small time investors.”

“I didn’t select the image and it has nothing to do with anything else. Anyone who knows me knows those claims are absolute bullshit.”

With respect, whatever Mr Entsch’s views, the LNP’s views, or the voter views of negative gearing and small time investors, it is not OK to use the language and imagery of witches about women. The implication of the image of the witch, deliberately positioned adjacent to Ms Howes’ campaign corflutes, is to invoke the comparison.

Today is not the first time I have written about witches. In fact, early this year I offered some advice for parliamentarians that warrants repeating:

‘Witch’ is a term used to denigrate women. It represents a woman who has outgrown her sexual utility, often imagined as a toothless old crone. It might also represent the threat women pose to patriarchy – through the magicke of their sexual wiles and fertility, the witch stands ready to trap unwary men. The vast majority of those burned as witches were women. That is no accident. It was an effective means of keeping women in their place.

Today, ‘witch’ carries its anti-women history even though many who use the term may not be conscious of it. As a word not used against men, and in light of the negative connotations it carries, use of ‘witch’ is sexist.

Advice to parliamentarians: find a different word without the sexist baggage.

The signs themselves go so far as to say ‘unfortunately , unlike the movies we can’t get rid of them by pouring water on them’. They express disappointment at a general inability to keep witches – women – in their place.

I accept that there may be an intent to express a desire to keep the ALP in ‘its place’ ie out of government. Sadly however, the clumsiness of the analogy and the language used instead conveys the time-worn expression of antipathy towards women. Women should not have to face sexist language. Women candidates for political office should not face sexist harassment in the course of doing so. We can be better than this.

Many will reject this interpretation. The metaphor is so deeply ingrained in our sexist culture that we have become immune to it. But let’s aspire to a higher level of discourse, that seeks actively, consciously, to deal with the issues without resorting to historical gendered slurs.

Even if Mr Entsch does not himself see the connection between the sign he authorised and the sexist implications for his opponent, he is now on notice that the posters sexist, and that many perceive them to be sexist. He is therefore in a position to step up, and to have the posters removed. That would be a fine contribution to public discourse.

Corporate control of staff personal life

News that Deakin University lecturer Martin Hirst was stood down without pay over three tweets, caused ripples of concern in the twittersphere and in the academy. Since the story first broke, Hirst has been sacked pending a decision to appeal. His employer’s position is that Hirst has breached the university’s code of conduct. The university had received a complaint from a Deakin University student that Hirst tweeted to the complainant in a threatening way. When the University inspected Hirst’s private account – that did not identify Hirst as a Deakin employee – it found two further offending tweets and suspended him. Hirst maintains that he did not know the complainant was a Deakin student.

This is not the first time an employee has had their job threatened by a social media post. In 2015, SBS reporter Scott McIntyre lost his job following a controversial tweet about the ANZACs. He has since settled his unfair dismissal case against SBS. More recently, La Trobe academic Roz Ward was  stood down for comments on her private Facebook page. Her comments did not relate to her work at La Trobe. She has since been reinstated after a massive national campaign.

The merger of public and private has never been so stark it seems. So, where might the boundary lie?

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In search of the pedagogy of lecture capture

Technophobia? Or pedagogy?


I hold views about compulsory across the board lecture capture in universities. I’ve worked out that my resistance comes from the same place as my longstanding questioning of the entrenched assumptions about PowerPoint as assumed practice. (PowerPoint is a post of its own however.)

But before you, the reader, prepares to take aim at me as a technophobe, or to launch celebrations at having found a kindred spirit who yearns for times of yore, let me explain.

My position is that technology is a tool, it is not the purpose of education. Further, all technology including even that of the lecture, should be selected purposefully according to principles of effective learning and teaching.

It is widely known that students use lecture capture for a few purposes. It allows for revision of the work covered in the lecture, and for revisiting complex ideas or ideas that the student missed in class. It also helps students who are unable to make class – they do not miss out on ‘the lecture’ because they can conveniently stream it in the comfort of their own home. Further, for students with English as a second language, neuroatypical students, and other students with diverse learning needs, the capture allows the student to engage with ‘the lecture’ on their own terms.

These are all very important goals, but none of these answer my question which is, why is lecture capture the best mode of achieving these goals? Are there not other technologies that can serve these purposes – perhaps even better?

There is a lot of concern voiced by academics about lecture capture driving students away from real life lectures, with negative consequences for student learning. That is not principally my own concern. Indeed I note that there are studies that discount the causative effect. My own view is that students should be able to select when and where they engage with their subjects. 

This still, however, does not answer the question ‘why lecture capture’ and indeed it prompts the question ‘why lecture’ – both of which learning and teaching settings are nothing more than a tool. The real question, surely, is ‘what is the best tool for the job’.

Despite the widely-held contemporary view that lectures are a passive learning experience – is not a learning experience at all – they can be an engaging and even a transformative learning experience. Whether offered didactically or interactively, this format is live performance. It involves a relationship between lecturer and student. The lecturer must read the audience cues…pause, reiterate, deviate, advance, moderate. These decisions are made in relation to tempo, voice, gestures, body movement, eye contact, content, choice of words, visual cues. There may well be ‘content delivery’ but an effective lecture is no passive transaction.

This renders the face-to-face lecture a qualitatively different experience from a recording of that lecture. If we are lecturing for video, the performance to be effective might adopt quite a different tone or format. Think TED Talks. One point of difference of TED Talks is their brevity – not the two-hour traditional university lecture assiduously captured by university AV/IT systems. (They are also highly practised and professionally shot and edited.)

For lectures that take an interactive approach, the experience of viewing a recording must be infuriating. Gaps in ‘delivery’, unclear discussion in the background, and a static camera angle. The viewer is excluded from the room, an outsider in the learning experience. 

Meanwhile, those in the room are under surveillance, their words and image potentially picked up by the capture system and exposing the student to the eyes of unknown others. I do not consider this a ‘safe’ learning environment, one in which I can in good conscience ask students to take risks. Further, I do not think we are modelling critical evaluation of privacy where we do not ask students to consider the privacy implications of the weekly broadcast. (Although I concede that privacy is pretty much dead in light of all the student data captured in analytics. Students are by now enculturated to be the product as well as the consumer of the processes of education.)

All of this is aimed at what I suspect is the end game of content delivery. Yes, examining the reasons for student use of lecture capture, the predominant purpose is going over that sweet, sweet content til they get it right. If that is the case, can we not package this content in a way that suits our educational design? 

My preference would be that university policies encourage lecturers to consider the best way to support student learning through diverse channels. For me, it is an interactive, relational, dynamic, lecture experience unhampered by the constraints of static camera/microphone and concerns about privacy. I like to support student flexibility and choice through pre-prepared podcasts which have a few key features.

  • These address the same content as is provided in the lecture. 
  • They emphasise the key points. 
  • They are perhaps 20 minutes long – giving a manageable and navigable ‘chunk’ and the chance for the student to gauge learning on the way.
  • They are free of the interactive distractions in class.
  • The format is more transportable, more flexible than lecture streaming.
  • I am not beholden to the vagaries of the software  (yes, I have been failed in the past and you’ll never guess what happened next).
  • Students can listen to podcasts before the lecture also, enhancing the lecture experience.

Student surveys reveal that my students value the podcasts as a means to enhance their learning, and I am satisfied that this format addresses the unstated intent of mandatory lecture capture policies.

I would prefer, however, to see a more clearly articulated and pedagogy-based approach to universities’ policies.

Professionalism online (for new lawyers)

I have been meaning for some time to write a post about what’s described as ‘personal branding’. My interest lies in providing a constructive platform for those entering the profession and who seek to dip their toes into social networks as part of their development of a professional identity.

I was prompted again by the recent cases of academics Roz Ward and Martin Hirst each of whom has had their employment threatened due to a personal Facebook post unrelated to work, and a series of publicly available tweets, respectively. These cases, and many others like them, raise a myriad of issues about privacy, employers’ rights, employees’ responsibility, contemporary standards of discourse, and working out when they apply.

Before I could get my thoughts together to finish a post, Martin Hirst posted on his own blog most eloquently about the issues he and others face. So I have scaled back for now. The topic will likely need a series of posts to canvass the different facets of the complex issue of personal freedoms online and their intersection with our professional lives.

This post is a minimalist start on the topic of online professional personae. It addresses what I see as the professional needs of that most conservative of professions, the law. It is designed to offer a starting point for reflection about one’s digital presence in the context of professionalism in the law. It is not a highly critical piece – critique will come in later posts.

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