Archive for the ‘Civil Liberties’ Category

Dr Milada Horáková was a lawyer and active campaigner for social justice for all of her life. She was imprisoned both by the Gestapo and by the Communists (which is a more common pairing than you might expect – neither the Nazis or the Communists liked people who fought against tyranny). But it was the Communists that managed to kill her in 1950 after one of the most famous communist show trials outside the Soviet Union.

She was born in Prague, and went to law school at Charles University, before graduating, and becoming director of the welfare department for the Prague City Council. She joined the Czechoslovak Nationalist Socialist Party (which was no relation to the Nazi party despite the similar name). She was an active campaigner for women’s rights.

After Germany occupied Czechoslovakia in 1939 (after annexing a lot of it in 1938), Horáková joined a resistance movement. She and her husband, Bohuslav Horak, joined a resistance movement and were arrested by the Gestapo in 1940, before being sent to a concentration camp in 1944.

Once she returned to Prague after WWII, she rejoined the National Socialist Party and became a Member of Parliament in 1945, until the Communist coup of 1948 (as an aside, after WWII, the communist party won 38% of the vote in the first free elections, but after it became clear that the population hated the reality of their minority rule and wouldn’t reelect them even to a minority position in the government, they staged a coup with Soviet Union help). Horáková used her WWII resistance experience to set up a similar group of former members of the National Socialist Party to resist the Communist. She and most of her felow resistors were arrested in 1949.

They were interrogated and tortured (at least I would define it as torture – forced to stand in waist deep water for 24 hours at a time, stuck in tiny one metre square rooms without heat or light for days at a time). In the belief that the Communists wouldn’t hang a woman, Horáková confessed to many of the charges. But the communists were equal opportunity killers, and put 13 resistance group members on trial in a show trial. The trial was broadcast by radio to the nation. Although the parts where Horáková was on the stand were not broadcast much; as she refused to stick to the script provided, but instead argued with her accusers. According to Czech historian Karel Kaplan, the trial was deliberately intended to destroy any political opposition and deter all possible anti-Communist resistance.

On June 8th, 1950, Horáková and three of her co-defendants were sentenced to death. Despite calls for clemency from around the world, she was executed on June 27th, 1950. She left behind her husband, who escaped to Germany after going into hiding after his wife was captured, and a sixteen year old daughter, who stayed in the care of her Horáková’s sister.

Before she was executed, she was allowed a 15-minute visit with her daughter, and her reported final words were:

I fall, I fall, I lost this battle, I leave honourably. I love this country, I love these people, build prosperity for them. I leave without hatred for you. I wish you this, I wish you this.

In 1968, during the Prague Spring, there was an attempt to rehabilitate her reputation, but it came to nothing after the Soviets crushed the reformers. In 1991, after the Velvet Revolution, President Havel posthumously awarded her the Order of T G Masaryk First Class, and named an important street after her.

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As an aside, when I was trying to work out who would be an interesting Czech woman to write about, I came across this Wikipedia article – List of people from Prague, which has 4 women on it out of a list of 44 (not including Milada Horáková, or even Madeleine Albright). Those feminists campaigning for more female wikipedists are probably right.

Thanks to the FemBio, a great site with the brief biographies of lots of interesting women, for the inspiration to write about Milada Horáková.


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It’s New Year’s Eve in Munich, and we’ve just gone for a stroll in the fading winter light. Everywhere around us was the smell of gunpowder. From the small stash of fireworks we bought at the supermarket that morning, and were attempting, at great risk, to light despite not understanding the German instructions. From the 10 year old boys we walked past who looked slightly askance at the idea of adults watching them light up some bangers. And from the geeky looking guy doing some test firing from just behind his garage.

I remember similar wintry walks growing up (without the snow of course). In Australia, in my childhood, the Queen’s Birthday weekend in June* was known as Cracker night. Everyone bought their own fireworks and let them off in the backyard. Most neighbourhoods had a huge bonfire on the Monday night, with communal fireworks, and all the children competing for who could find the parachutes. But it is illegal for ordinary people to buy fireworks in most of Australia now.

During the 1980s, most states in Australia banned the sale of fireworks except to fireworks professionals (although some keen people managed to buy them by filling out copious forms). Here in Germany, people over the age of 18 can buy them on the last three days of the year only.

It’s yet another example of the difference in views on safety between Australia and continental Europe. The stereotype most Australians have of themselves, and outsiders have of us, is that we are fairly free and easy, laid back people, without a lot of rules and regulations.

In reality, over the last 30 years or so, our legislators have become much more risk averse than average. They’ve been much more willing to legislate so that people can’t take risks, even if they want to. So when we go places where risks are available, we are not quite sure what to do about them.

With the result that with Mr Penguin trying (unsuccessfully) to set off the bungers this afternoon with some snowy matches, and Chatterboy and Hungry Boy poking curiously at the iced over pond nearby, I was ridiculously (but fortunately not obviously) worried about the theoretical risks all three of them were taking.


*not New Year ‘s Eve or the 5th of November, of course, as two years out of three there was a total fire ban.


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Reading last week’s Economist editorial about the crisis in Thailand, I was struck by this statement:

Democracy works only when the parties that lose an election accept the outcome.

It seemed a cautionary comment about the state of politics in the US at the moment. And reading this column from Paul Krugman added to that feeling:

For today’s G.O.P. is, fully and finally, the party of Ronald Reagan — not Reagan the pragmatic politician, who could and did strike deals with Democrats, but Reagan the antigovernment fanatic, who warned that Medicare would destroy American freedom. It’s a party that sees modest efforts to improve Americans’ economic and health security not merely as unwise, but as monstrous. It’s a party in which paranoid fantasies about the other side — Obama is a socialist, Democrats have totalitarian ambitions — are mainstream. And, as a result, it’s a party that fundamentally doesn’t accept anyone else’s right to govern.

I read widely about world politics. I’m far from an expert on any country, even Australia. But from a safe distance, the US seems an increasingly scary place right now.

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Jody at Raising Weg has answered some really interesting questions from Amber at American Family about changing parenting norms, and how we trade off safety and freedom – it’s clearly changed, but how and why? This is something I think a lot about, so I’m going to answer them here. Chatterboy and Hungry Boy are 7 and 5.

1) At what age is a child old enough to be left alone in a car while you are out of sight for between 5-10 minutes ?  ( for example to run into a store or pick up another child)

I used to leave Chatterboy in the car as a baby when I went to pay for petrol – not out of sight, and only for two or three minutes (in a locked car under the shade).  I’d still do that now, but I doubt if I’d do it out of sight. I’m paranoid about the heat, and the possibility of the 5-10 minutes becoming longer, rather than anything else – although my kids are old enough now that they would probably be able to get out of a locked car, they are also obedient enough that they might not realise they should until it was too late.

2) At what age would you feel comfortable leaving a child home alone for up to 30 minutes?

I think I could leave Chatterboy (aged 7) now, but I haven’t – partly because I would not trust both of them (Hungry Boy is 5) together, and there are rarely situations where leaving one makes sense.  I’ve left both of them together to go across the road to get coffee (which takes five minutes), and did that when they were 6 and 4. Half an hour is a bit longer than I feel comfortable yet, though.

3) At what age would you let your child go play alone (no adults) outside in your yard?

Our yard is only big enough for one car and an outside table – it feels like an extension of our house. So the answer to this was about two. But they tend not to play out there without us. They are more likely to be out of sight upstairs in the playroom, which has exactly the same level of risk – the most likely risk is that a fight starts and they actually damage each other.

4) What age would you let them walk 1-2 blocks to play alone in a park?

This is an interesting one for us. We live two doors away from a small childrens’ playground. One of the local kids, call him Zac, started going there by himself about six.  For him it was crossing a quiet road, and then walking about 20 metres. The whole neighbourhood disapproved, but partly I think, because the parents had made themselves unpopular in a number of other ways. I’d be happy to let our boys walk to the playground by themselves, but I’m not sure about letting them play by themselves. They asked me the other day, and I was reluctant – partly, I think, because of the previous neighbourhood disapproval, but also because of the remote chance of physical injury. I think we’re close to letting them play together – now that we’re at the age, I think Zac was actually totally fine at the age of six.

Occasionally in the evenings now, we send Chatterboy out to run around the block (which is about 200m long, and 20m wide), when he has excess energy. He quite likes that. But so far, he hasn’t been allowed to cross any road by himself, so we wouldn’t let him do anything that involved crossing a road.

We’ll send both Chatterboy and Hungry Boy up the street to a neighbour’s house with a prior phone call, and us watching them cross the road. They love the grownupness of that. Their friends up the road (who are 10 and 7) will often come down by themselves, even without the phone call. To me the biggest question here is the crossing the road question. The Roads and Traffic Authority has a pamphlet they hand out which says that children don’t have enough depth perception and understanding to cross a road by themselves until 10. That seems too old to me, but I can’t help but take it into account.

5) At what age would you let your child have a sleepover with a friend from school if you had only met that child’s parent a few times in passing?

The boys have had quite a few sleepovers now, but always with friends who we have had a reasonable amount to do with. I think in all cases we’ve been to the friends place ourselves first – not in a particularly checking out way, but just because the relationship hasn’t progressed to sleepover stage without a fair bit of interaction first. So this one feels like whatever age it is that they will have their own school relationships without us getting much involved – for our kids that looks like being a few years off yet.

And what are the factors that affect our decisions?

  • At the age of 9, I was commuting to school by walking  a mile by myself, catching a train (with my classmates) and then walking a short distance at the other end. I think I was sensible enough to do that, and I’m confident my children will be too. Mr Penguin walked a mile or so to school (in rural Scotland) from a fairly young age, and rode his bike pretty young also.
  • Our boys are generally pretty obedient out in the world. So if we tell them to do something, out of our sight, we can mostly trust them to do it. When leaving them behind for five minutes while getting coffee, they are much less likely to fight in that five minutes than if we are actually there (which is easy to tell by the aftermath).
  • BUT, since I was at school, there are far fewer children walking the streets. So motorists are less used to watching out for children, and if there are any nasty people out there, your chances of being the child attacked in some way are higher.
  • I’m possibly overly concerned by what the people in our neighbourhood think. Our boys run on ahead of us a lot when we’re walking around our suburb, and it is interesting to watch people look at them twice when they think that they are out by themselves.
  • I do think we all worry far too much about stranger danger – out of all proportion to the risk. Samantha Knight was a 9 year old girl who disappeared in Sydney in 1986 while walking home from school. The number of children walking home alone from school in Sydney dropped almost immediately. But in the end, it turned out she was abducted by an acquaintance, who had babysat her in the past.  It wasn’t the walking home from school alone that did it (although it probably helped the opportunity) – it was the access to an acquaintance who turned out to be a murdering paedophile.

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Watching the Obama Inauguration, from a country deeply affected by American politics, but still outside it, has been wonderful (although I have to admit that 3 am was just too early for me to watch it live). But reading Elizabeth at Half Changed World’s description of actually being there has reminded me of the one time I really have been there for a historic occasion.

At the end of 1989, when I had just finished my actuarial exams, and Mr Penguin had just finished his law degree, I managed to persuade my employer to give me three months leave without pay so we could backpack around Europe together. Australians are very experienced European winter travellers – it’s when our long university holidays are, and everything is cheaper for our banana republic currency.

When we got to Prague towards the end of December, we’d been out of touch with real news for a few days. The Berlin wall had fallen the previous month, but for the traveller, nothing much had changed. You still had to change an extortionate (for a backpacker) amount of hard currency at the official rate every day. You still needed beautifully watermarked visas in your passport. And there was still nothing in the shops.

But in Prague, it was clear even to someone who spoke no Czech that change was in the air. Posters saying “Havel na Hrad” (Havel to the Castle) were everywhere. There was a makeshift memorial with constant attendance and new candles lit all the time in Wenceslas Square to a student who had been beaten to death a month before and whose death started a rolling set of protests. Not knowing anyone to talk to about it, we continued on our tourist way – checking out the Old Town Square, and the Charles Bridge, before taking a trip to the Castle.

And there, we ran into history. The government was about to resign, and declare Vaclav Havel the new President. The media were gathered, hoping for a defenestration (a Czech tradition) of the old government. We saw an ordinary looking bus arrive, and a distant Vaclav Havel with his new ministers get out and go inside.

And then, we went back to Wenceslas Square, absolutely packed with joyous Czech citizens, in time to catch the end of Havel’s speech after he had been announced as President. We had only a vague understanding of what was going on, and who the players were. And we didn’t understand a word being spoken. But being in that huge square (more than a square – four or five big blocks long), packed with people, all celebrating the fall of the tyranny that had been their government for more than forty years gave us a glimmering of understanding. By seeing the joy on people’s faces, we had a new appreciation of how lucky we were to live in a place that had been a stable democracy our entire lives.

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I’ve written before about how annoying I find the rules about religious education in NSW public schools. In 1880, the NSW government established the Public Instruction Act, which introduced compulsory free education in NSW. In a compromise with the (non catholic) religious schools, the government also took over most of the poor, parish schools. As a compromise, to compensate the clergy for their sudden lack of access to impressionable young children, all students were allowed to continue to receive religious education (although it was specified as non compulsory).  Here’s the relevant section of the original 1880 Act.

Hours for secular instruction

(1) In every school, 4 hours during each school day shall be devoted to secular instruction exclusively and a part of each day, not more than 1 hour, shall be set apart when the children of any one religious persuasion may be instructed by the clergyman or other religious teacher of a religious persuasion but, in all cases, the pupils receiving the religious instruction shall be separated from the other pupils of the school.

(2) And the hour during which the religious instruction may be given shall be fixed by mutual agreement between the school board in consultation with the principal of the school and the clergy of the district or the other person that may be duly authorised to act in his or her place and any classroom of a school may be used for the religious instruction by like agreement:

(a) provided that the religious instruction to be so given shall in every case be the religious instruction authorised by the church to which the clergy or other religious teacher may belong; and

(b) provided further that in case of the nonattendance of any clergy or religious teacher during any part of the period agreed to be set apart for religious instruction the period shall be devoted to the ordinary secular instruction in the school.

The rules are not really all that different today (although the hours have reduced):

32 Special religious education

(1) In every government school, time is to be allowed for the religious education of children of any religious persuasion, but the total number of hours so allowed in a year is not to exceed, for each child, the number of school weeks in the year.

(2) The religious education to be given to children of any religious persuasion is to be given by a member of the clergy or other religious teacher of that persuasion authorised by the religious body to which the member of the clergy or other religious teacher belongs.

(3) The religious education to be given is in every case to be the religious education authorised by the religious body to which the member of the clergy or other religious teacher belongs.

(4) The times at which religious education is to be given to children of a particular religious persuasion are to be fixed by agreement between the principal of the school and the local member of the clergy or other religious teacher of that persuasion.

(5) Children attending a religious education class are to be separated from other children at the school while the class is held.

(6) If the relevant member of the clergy or other religious teacher fails to attend the school at the appointed time, the children are to be appropriately cared for at the school during the period set aside for religious education.

So at Chatterboy and Hungry Boys’ school, the P&C have been exploring whether there is anything the “non-scripture” children can do while the scripture classes are on.  Gossip from neighbouring schools suggests that there are a number of options that other schools are taking for these children. They often edge into some small degree of educational component, such as comparative religious education, singing, or at another Sydney school, normal tasks (since there are so few religious children).

A close read of the legislation suggests that alternative activities are allowed, as long as they are not on the curriculum. But unfortunately, that’s not going to happen at our school. The local church representatives were out in force at the P&C meeting, refusing to countenance any activity for “non-scripture”, and the teaching staff have retreated in the face of the political pressure.

It’s a common pattern – a minority, who cares deeply about an issue – is quite capable of overturning the apathetic majority. Although it’s probably only 20% of kids who do non scripture, I’d be surprised if even 10% of the school cared deeply about the religious aspect of scripture. The others are just sending their kids along because it’s good for them to know something about religion. According to this Hansard Q&A, only 15 requests for alternative subjects have been received by the Department of Education in three years.

I’ve had enough indignant conversations with parents about the issue to know that there are parents who would rather their children got to do something during that wasted time. But none of us have cared enough to be brave enough to take on the religious – atheists tend to be shy away from a religious confrontation, in my experience.

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Today’s book review is Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them, by Philippe Legrain. Legrain is a British journalist (but with a complex heritage involving Estonia, the US and France) who started writing this book just after the July 2005 terrorist attacks on London.

The book’s introduction is titled “It’s time for fresh thinking about immigration”, and it comes from a very pro immigration stance. That said, it is not a polemic. It consists of a considered survey of what is happening with the movement of people around the world – legal and illegal, skilled and unskilled, economic and humanitarian (although that can be a pretty fine line). And then, in most cases, there is a critique of the policies that could make the movements better for the world as a whole. For example, Legrain points out that Australia’s points system for choosing skilled immigrants often gets us more educated unskilled workers, as employers are reluctant to employ someone with overseas work experience, even if it is in a high demand occupation.

The insight which was new to me was how effectively migration from poor countries, whether permanent, or “guest worker” can act as foreign aid from the rich world to the poor world. The most famous economy reliant on this is the Philippines – up to 40% of the country’s economy, by some estimates, could be made up of remittances from Filipinos and Filipinas abroad. And if  you’ve ever been in Hong Kong on a Sunday (the day the maids get the day off and spend it socialising with each other in the public spaces) you would have been struck by the sheer numbers of people involved.

Much of the book involves going through the detailed arguments that are commonly made against immigration, or for border controls, and refuting them one by one. The final chapter is then a plea for rich countries to open their borders with as few limitations as possible, basically because in the author’s view, that is the quickest and simplest way to improve the standard of living in all countries, as much of the money made by immigrants will find its way back to friends and relatives back home.

I’m pretty pro-immigration, myself. My boys’ four grandparents were born in three different countries (none of them Australia, where they were born). I’m part of a privileged small sliver of the world that has had extraordinarily free travel opportunities, both for work and leisure. I spent three years working in the UK, and have seriously considered (without any worries about visas) moving to the US and Japan for work. Yesterday I caught up with friends who were born in Malaysia, and have been educated and/or worked in Australia, Malaysia, Hong Kong and New Zealand. They live in Taipei, Taiwan, these days, but will probably come back to Australia to live permanently in the next few years. Very few people in the world  can even dream about such opportunities.

The book correctly points out that there is a lot of movement around the world that is of skilled workers, like me and my friends, as well as unskilled, and there is little backlash about the skilled movement. But in the unskilled labour market, that is a different story, even though it is clear in many countries that the demand is there – many rich countries are short of unskilled workers to do the jobs that can be regarded as demeaning (fruit picking, cleaning and the like).

But I think this book is too quick to brush aside real issues. The big inconsistency for me was Legrain’s eagerness to allow guest workers (to use an old fashioned term). His view was that as long as you have open borders, guest workers will be quite happy to go home, and will not be a burden on a society that provides for its sick and poor – benefits like healthcare, old age pensions, etc can be only provided to citizens or permanent residents.

It’s easy to imagine that the initial few years of such a policy might work well. If Australia let in anyone who wanted to come on that basis, we would probably initially get a cheap labour force, with little or no burden on the taxpayer. But I like to think that Australians are more generous than that, in the medium term. We would gradually find it shocking that long term residents of this country were not entitled to medical care. We would expect to educate their children.  And gradually, the state would provide some form of benefits to immigrants, which would make the country more attractive, and then pull more immigrants than the country could cope with.

Although most guest workers start out expecting to stay for a few years and go home after they have made their fortune, many end up staying for much longer than they had planned, perhaps permanently. And if they view themselves as guest workers (and society views them that way), then they are much less likely to integrate well into their host society. Legrain suggests that if the know that they can come back, they are more likely to go home. That’s probably true, up to a point. But even unintegrated migrants have generally made a new life in their new country. They may not speak the language, but they have a new social group, and support structures. Perhaps fewer of them will stay permanently, but some will, without ever seeing themselves as part of that country. I’ve posted before about the emotional side of migration – it’s hard even if you are wholly committed to it. And making it harder for people to commit in the first place, by treating people as second-class not even citizens, will create real social costs in the long term.

I very much enjoyed reading this book. Mostly, I found myself nodding my head at the arguments – familiar to anyone who has followed an immigration debate. But by going so far in its ultimate conclusion – advocating the removal of all boundaries – I suspect it loses even its target audience – the lucky skilled workers who will only benefit from more migration of people to compete for other, less lucky, people’s jobs.

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