Monday, March 28, 2016

Australian Senate Electoral Reform: Close, but no Cigar

In Australia, we have a great, albeit complicated-in-the-back-end, system for electing senators. Not only is it proportional so that smaller parties can get represented, but it's preferential, so people aren't pushed towards 2-3 parties due to a fear of wasting their vote.

In practice, almost every person just votes for a single party, and the party's own preferences for how that vote should be distributed are followed. This is called a Group Voting Ticket, or GVT. The effort of a person specifying all their own preferences, or even learning about more than a couple of different parties' policies, is enough to deter about 96% of the population from numbering every box for every candidate, which often reaches about 200 in total, which until recently, was the only alternative to following a party's GVT.

One area where there has been a lot of argument is that the way GVTs were being created wasn't fair, because they allowed parties to agree how to game the system by preference sharing in a way that was technically visible to voters, but invisible in practice, creating strange bedfellows. This allowed election of senators with sub-1% of the first preference votes to win seats after preference distribution.

Lack of transparency is an issue, but I have no problem with preferential voting systems allowing the election of people who would not have been foreseen in a non-preferential system. That's what preferences are for, after all: electing consensus candidates, rather than extremists who win a non-preferential plurality.

So, a reform that's just been made, specifically designed to exclude many minor parties from doing what was done in the last election - winning seats against the odds - has been enacted. (The government says the problem is that those who were elected in this way are not representative of Australia, but looking at the individual senators makes it clear they are far more representative of Australia than the major parties' senators.) The reform sounds reasonable, being that a person can preferentially number party boxes - as many as they'd like to express their preferences - instead of one party box or all candidate boxes.

The problem with this reform, however, is that it throws the baby out with the bathwater: some parties, specifically Pirate Party Australia in my experience, use preference deals with other parties in an open, transparent and honest way, and those parties will now be penalised by the unaddressed problem with this reform: most people still don't know enough about all the political parties, or care enough about how the system works, to vote for more than a few pairs at the top of their mind. Preferences will now be left unspecified, even where they would have clearly aligned with a voter's honest preferences.

I appreciate that the Australian Greens have said that they have had this reform as their policy for 12 years, so there should be no surprise to anybody, but the public debate was non-existent, and most people would have no clue about some old Greens policy that has had very little airtime over the intervening years. There was no Australian Law Reform Commission request for opinions, followed by a report, which would be standard practice for such an important reform.

Pirate Party Australia was calling for a, now possibly useless, non-partisan royal commission to consider different approaches that would be fair (to the voters, not the status quo). I would like to think that one solution that could have come out of that would have been this: Allow people to specify their own party preferences, just like in the current reform, but for any unspecified preferences, follow the preferences of the party in the voter's first preference.

For example, if party A had a GVT of A, B, C, D, E, F, and a voter voted A, F, D, then that would be translated into A, F, D, B, C, E.

This slight tweak to the system would have been the best of all worlds: Voters would be free to specify their own preferences, without too much effort and without relying on backroom party deals, parties could have worked with like-minded parties to ensure that votes aren't exhausted, and thereby wasted, and most of the power to exploit GVTs would have been removed.

Maybe this idea can be revisited after the upcoming election, but with all those independent voices set to be wiped out and a resulting, further entrenchment of power upon us, I'm not holding my breath.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Facebook and Hate Speech

I'm a very firm believer in freedom of speech. There are lots of reasons to oppose censorship, but that's not what this post is going to be about. This post is about what Facebook, and similar sites can do to help reduce the effect of hate speech without censoring anyone.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

[Solved] Frequent Wifi Disconnection on Samsung Galaxy Tab S

My Samsung Galaxy Tab S, running KitKat, has been having problems over the last few weeks, where the WiFi connection constantly drops out and reconnects, causing connection issues on loads of sites and apps. It's been happening at home on a new router, and at work on some fancy new access points that mesh together to bathe our whole office, so I'd put it down to the phone (I use the 8.4 inch tablet as a phone anyway (which looks pretty comical)) itself.

I finally decided to dig into why, and found this forum post, where people throw around various ideas like Samsung SideSync being the cause, though in my case it was much simpler.

I'd turned on Smart Network Switch, under the WiFi settings, which claims to maintain a stable connection by switching between 4g and WiFi when needed. There's something wrong with it though, because it was saying that a WiFi connection is unstable even when it's got full bars in an unpolluted area, so it was just causing lots of unnecessary switching to 4g. Since I turned it off, the WiFi connection has been reliable and stable, rather than switching several times per minute.

Problem solved, and I hope it helps someone else out there.

Monday, June 29, 2015

I Fear For My Citizenship And You Should Too

The government's proposed changes to citizenship for dual nationals would allow a minister to cancel a dual citizen's citizenship at their own discretion, and it would not allow appeals to the court. If someone is not a citizen, only having a visa enables them to stay in Australia. Even if they have a visa (and why would they?), it can be cancelled by the same minister, so they could potentially be deported or at least moved to detention, held incommunicado, before anyone knows what's happening. This is remarkably dangerous.

The Liberal Party have clearly included in their talking points a lot of emphasis on protections, but let's have a quick look at them. As an aside, Labor has also been working through how to word support for this. The bill would allow for judicial review. I don't believe that this is because of the government's concern for the rule of law; I believe it's because whenever, in the past, Australian governments have tried to exclude it as an option, the High Court has found a way to re-include it, either by saying the government didn't word the legislation effectively enough to exclude it, or that the government couldn't exclude it because the Constitution directly allows for some petitions to the High Court that the government can't legislate away.

But, put simply, judicial review only allows a person to challenge whether a decision was made properly; it does not allow a person to challenge whether a decision was made reasonably given the facts, i.e. it does not allow for a merits based appeal where the affected party can question the fairness or accuracy of the decision, except in very limited circumstances. Typically, the minister's decision would stand unless it meets a really high standard called Wednesbury unreasonableness, which is defined as:

"A reasoning or decision is Wednesbury unreasonable (or irrational) if it is so unreasonable that no reasonable person acting reasonably could have made it."[1]

That's not very illuminating, so in practise, you need to prove that the decision was unreasonable beyond belief. Luckily, reasons for (most kind of) administrative decisions need to be made available, so that gives some fuel. In SZMDS[2], a homosexual man was deported back to Pakistan because the minister didn't believe he was really afraid (and the federal court judge didn't believe he was really gay (despite strong evidence)). That's the kind of stuff that doesn't meet the level of unreasonableness that would allow a successful challenge.

Even if a decision was challenged successfully, the typical result is that the minister just needs to remake the decision. Much of the time, they make it differently with a different result, because they know they're being watched, but we've seen how belligerent this government is with political decisions; they'd just make the same decision, maybe for better rationalised reasons, which is what Scott Morrison tried to do in S297.

In addition, the minister's reasons, which would normally be accessible to the formerly dual citizen, would likely be exempt from being made available, as the documents would probably have been prepared for cabinet, or be related to national security (as we've been told is the purpose of this legislation) and are therefore exempt from the Freedom of Information Act. All the safeguards that the Abbott government have given are a smokescreen.

So, I, a person who was born an Australian citizen, who has spent most of my life here, but commonly speak out against the policies of both the major Australian parties, should rationally fear that at some point, my citizenship could be revoked on a whim. That's a pretty bad chilling effect against my continued involvement in the political process. If that seems like an unreasonable position because the government has said that the bill is only meant to affect people who leave the country to fight against "our interests", consider that they don't feel so strongly that they'd actually put that as a requirement into the legislation. As usual, with civil-liberty-encroaching legislation, we are told that there are protections, but they're merely spoken platitudes, unwritten and unbinding.

My job involves finding edge cases that allow for a well meaning rule to be exploited, but I don't pride myself on finding this one, because it's not subtle. To any of these lawyers in power, assuming they wrote their own essays and sat their own exams, it's obvious. Obvious to the point of being clearly intended. All these laws to protect us from the way-of-life-changing effects of terrorism, and it's always the major party politicians destroying the rule of law and freedoms we hold dear.

[1] Associated Provincial Picture Houses Ltd v Wednesbury Corporation (1948) 1 KB 223
[2] Minister for Immigration and Citizenship v SZMDS & ANOR [2010] 226 ALR 367

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Apple Craftini

I just made some tasty cocktails with some of what I had available, so I'm writing it down before I forget, and hopefully it will make someone else happy if they make it and drink it.

I'm calling it, egotistically, the Apple Craftini.

Put about a dozen cubes of ice info a 600ml+ measuring jug.
Blend a medium granny smith Apple with 40ml of extra dry vermouth.
Push the apple mixture through a sieve into the measuring jug, making sure to scrape off the solids from the underside of the sieve into the jug.
Add 80 more ml of vermouth, along with 120ml of vodka. Make sure the vodka is non-Russian, because of their anti-gay laws and totalitarian power structure.
Add 120ml of a good apple cider - I used Cascade - and then stir it all thoroughly together.

Serve out into two highball or large whisky glasses, including the ice. Feel free to garnish with some apple peel. I peeled off a bit, but forgot to put it on the glass.